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Jamal Mecklai: Towards a new Islam


Jamal Mecklai  |  New Delhi 

When the history of the late 20th/early 21st century is written, it will be seen as the period when Islam went through a fundamental change, emerging different but stronger, rather like the Reformation of Christianity in the 15th century.
Evidence of this is everywhere. You can barely turn in any direction without hearing something or another about Islam""both defamatory and laudatory. Clearly, it is the issue of our times and while I wasn't around back in the 15th century, and while the media was far from the omnipresent animal it is today, I would bet that this "buzz" that we now hear about Islam, was the buzz you heard about Christianity at that time.
The truth is that all religions have fundamentalist factions, who see this or that version of their scriptures as correct, this or that leader as the anointed one, and so on. Through time, all religions live with these internal struggles, and Islam is no exception.
However, over the past few decades, the churning within Islam has become more and more volatile, and, since the Islamic revolution in Iran (1979), has spilled out screaming into the so-called secular world.
The shrillest""and horrifying""noises, of course, are coming from the terrorist fringe, which is using fundamentalist Islam as a smokescreen to push a range of political goals.
Throughout history, religion has often been hijacked in this way, and whether these movements take on an Islamic or a Hindu or a Christian or a Judaic face, they are politics, pure and simple. [Mr Osama bin Laden's espoused goals, for instance, are very specifically political""get the Americans out of Saudi, replace the Saudi government, and so on.]
Then, there are hundreds of millions of plain, devout Muslims who are, on the one hand, horrified at the actions of the fundamentalist fringe that is hijacking their religion, and, on the other, shocked at the mindless, heartless response being driven from Washington. [To have your beliefs described as fanatical, backward, barbaric and uncivilised is hardly a way to try and create a dialogue. It is heartening that since the London bombings last month there has been a dramatic change in the debate""more and more "moderate" Muslims are speaking out and, critically, more and more ordinary non-Muslims are seeing the foolishness of trying to fight terror with terror, to wit, a recent poll showed that 85 per cent of the British population believes that the attacks in London were a direct result of Britain's pillion ride on America's honour killing war in Iraq.]
And finally, there are hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of Muslims like myself who have lived largely outside the religion, because its perceived practices did not fit in with our lifestyles. I [We] am [are] suddenly identifying myself [ourselves] as Muslim[s] and trying to understand, and participate in, this change.
I am amazed at the number of people like myself""what I would call "quasi-Muslims"""I have encountered over the past year or so. And while most of us may not remain fully engaged in the drama, I believe that the fresh energy we bring to the table can contribute significantly to the evolution of a new, more inclusive Islam.
And, of course, to make it work, it is critical that non-Muslims join the dialogue as well. In fact, this is a necessary condition""nothing exists in a vacuum, and, as Islam, which drives the hopes and beliefs of over 20 per cent of humanity, morphs, it is bound to impact virtually every nook and cranny of the existing economic and political status quo.
What are these changes likely to be? Well, certainly the control of oil and oil revenues would be at the top of the list. Many""perhaps most""people believe that America's misadventures in the Middle East are really about oil; most people also believe that the Saudi monarchy is tottering, and, it is only a matter of time before it crumbles.
So, what would the contours of this new petroleum era? Who would control the revenues? Would oil be invoiced in, say, euros? What would this do to the dollar, both in terms of its value and in terms of its role in world markets?
Another change could be a widening acceptance of Islamic finance, which, as far as my limited knowledge goes, replaces lending (interest) with investment (risk-sharing). This would imply that the equity "risk premium" would decline, as there would be more money-seeking, risk-sharing investments, as compared to fixed income. Interestingly, global equity markets are all at or close to all-time highs and the bulls are showing no sign of tiring. Is this the beginning of what could be called an "Islamic rally"?
There would doubtless be other far-reaching changes as a result of the newly evolving Islam. However, to ensure that this engagement is, indeed, a win-win, it is crucial that non-Muslims come in""are brought in""to the debate about the changing face of Islam. The good news is that it is already happening.
The author is CEO of Mecklai Financial

First Published: Fri, August 05 2005. 00:00 IST