The Victimhood Trap

Indian Express, February 7, 2007

The world’s 1.4 billion Muslims seem overwhelmingly enraged by the war in Iraq and the suffering caused by US military intervention. But there appears to be little outrage against the sectarian bloodletting that has led to more Iraqi casualties than war directly involving American troops.

Muslim leaders and intellectuals find it easier to criticise outsiders for the harm inflicted on fellow Muslims. When it comes to recognising the suffering caused by fellow believers, there is a tendency to fudge the issue.

The lack of democratic space in much of the Muslim world has prevented the emergence of mass non-violent protest movements, especially aimed at the conduct of other Muslims. It is common for demonstrators in Muslim countries to protest against the actions of Israel or the US. But one seldom hears of protests against the wrongs committed by Muslim regimes or, in Iraq’s case, sectarian militias. The violence perpetrated by Sudan’s regime in Darfur, for example, has gone by and large unprotested in much of the Muslim world.

Muslim thinkers and leaders have been preoccupied with the question of “how to reverse Muslim decline, especially in relation to the west.” There is still little effort to recognise the real reasons for Muslim humiliation and backwardness.

Islam’s early generations produced knowledge and wealth that enabled Muslim empires to dominate much of the world. But now almost half the world’s Muslim population is illiterate and the combined GDP of the member states of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) hovers near the GDP of France alone. More books are translated every year from other languages into Spanish than have been translated into Arabic over the last century.

In the year 2000, according to the World Bank, the average income in the advanced countries (at purchasing price parity) was $27,450, with the US income averaging $34,260. Last year, the US income went up to $37,500. Israel’s income per head stood at $19,320 in 2000 and was $19,200 last year. The average income of the Muslim world, however, stood at $3,700. The per capita income on PPP basis in 2003 of the only nuclear-armed Muslim majority country, Pakistan, was a meagre $2,060. Excluding the oil exporting countries, none of the Muslim countries had per head incomes above the world average of $7,350.

National pride in the Muslim world is derived from the rhetoric of “destroying the enemy” and “making the nation invulnerable.” Such rhetoric sets the stage for the clash of civilisations as much as specific western policies. It also serves as an opiate that keeps Muslims riled against external enemies with little attention paid to the internal causes of intellectual and economic decline.

The Muslim world needs a broad movement to review the material and moral issues confronting the Umma (the community of believers) and an introspection of Muslims’ own collective mistakes.

Muslims must peacefully mobilise against sectarianism and the violence and destruction in, say, Iraq. But for that, Muslim discourse would have to shift away from the focus on Muslim victimhood and towards taking responsibility, as a community, for our own situation.

The Quran describes Prophet Muhammad as the prophet of Mercy. Muslims begin all their acts, including worship, with the words, ‘In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.’ The Quran also says ‘To you, your faith and to me, mine,’ which removes any theological basis for sectarian violence. But unfortunately these mercy-focused and peacemaking ideas are lost in the overall discourse in the Muslim world about reviving lost glory and setting right the injustice of western domination.

Once Muslims convince themselves that the sectarian violence is a Zionist or American conspiracy or that it is the result of American occupation, their rage gets diverted. There is little rage and resentment against fellow Muslims who are actually engaged in that meaningless violence and little room for a Muslim Martin Luther King to stand up and say “We are responsible for this and we need to put an end to it.”