Islam and the Challenges of Modernisation
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 Thursday, the 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 ad ministerial post with responsibility for public works and transportation. And he was elected as a member of parliament for a constituency in Tripoli which I understand is his home town.”
Dr. Nizami also mentioned, “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 try 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; as the so-called Arab Spring was beginning to gather steep.”
“Mr. Mikati failed to unable to continue as Prime Minister and resigned in March 2013. That aspiration of the Arab Spring vote for the modern democratic society, for transparent government free from corruption and incompetence, from military interference, from sectarianism and from the social injustices that are the consequences of such failure,” mentioned Dr. Nizami.
Dr. Nizami also mentioned, “Though events are still unfolding it is clear that those aspirations remain unrealised that the spring has become harsh winter. His Excellency has spoken and written extensively on the challenges that faced the Arab and Islamic worlds. He has consistently championed pluralism, tolerance and government by consensus. Because he has direct hands-on experience of the realities of political life entrepreneur world; 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, former Prime Minister of Lebanon
The former Prime Minister of Lebanon, His Excellency, 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 believes clash with no other organisations, since they connect to all people at virtual level. What seems to be coming to be fore rather cultural differences between people, by the way, 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 but a man who fed his life. I view Islam, my religion and that of 1.2 billion around the world to have relate 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 but Islam which wanted to instil in society at the outset.”
1) First Message: Woman and entrepreneurship
Former Lebanese Prime Minister started with the message on woman and entrepreneurship. Mr. Mikati said, “Islam is always portrayed in the western media as discriminating against woman 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; Prophet as her sole representative. 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 full economic partner in Muslim culture. This is the first teaching of Islam.
2) Message on Racial Equality
After the first teaching of Islam, His Excellency 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 slave freed by Abu Bakr. Thanks to the Islam and to the Islamic teachings on slavery, he was freed in the Arabian Peninsula at a time racism and in the name of tribalism was prevailed in Makkah. The Makkan tribal man … considered themselves superior to all other people of the world. A black man had no place amongst the Arab tribes except as a slave and that 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.”(Sura Huzaira) 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
Former Lebanese Prime Minister then moved on to another message on Social Harmony. Mr. Mikati 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 considerations of 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 pluralistic Constitution. The new Constitution had 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
The former Prime Minister of Lebanon 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, the head cover from cowboy in hat to the Russians ocean cars as the Arabian had headscarf. Most people think of the veil as socially and religiously a term affiliated with Islam and then to 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 persistent 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.”
His Excellency also maintained, “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 maintained it of religious backwardness not simply looking at it as being out of fashion.”
What about humour? 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. Of course, I am not suggesting censorship; absolutely not; but it does trigger question of whether humour could be displayed and not illegal.”
“Some people get it and some don’t. What is one’s right of expressing gives other the right to be displeased. The difference in human cultural is from 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 behind the confined 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 in the Western society. Yeh, if a Muslim takes the phrase, in Allah we trust; wanted to be treated with suspicion; somehow the belief in Allah might carry with the possibility of being a fanatic gun with the devils.”
6) Islam rejects democracy?
Former Lebanese Prime Minister then spoke of another cases of religious divide and the Muslims live principally in non-democratic regime. 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. This 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. Former Lebanese Prime Minister mentioned, “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. What common between Islam and many religions enter in dogmas, principles and spiritual belief are far greater than what’s keep them apart.”
Mr. Mikati suggested for launching a consortium
“However, cultural patterns between nations combined with a fast moving modern society are pitting more non-religious issue into the fold than any differences of executive interpretations and divine cultures. The narrative dimension of the conflict is greatly needed because recent event has sacrosanct increased temptation to embrace deeply polarised position as a popular level narratives and inter-cultural have become dominant. To avoid becoming that into this level and to this destructive debate we must come together as experts and 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 otherwise from all sides will shade trying to prevail.”
Lebanon: A living example of multi-
cultural democratic society
Former Lebanese Prime Minister concluded his speech by saying that morality consisting avoiding excesses by giving limit to our own freedom and tolerance. Mr. Mikati said, “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 takes the lead and become more pro-active. Extremists never betrayed the true values of any religion they belong to. No matter how religiously different we might be, tolerance and mutual respect are the only way to bring us together culturally.”
Mr. Mikati ended his lecture by saying that morality consisting 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. Allow me ladies and gentlemen, I believe it is about time for moderates or the silent majority takes the lead and become more pro-active. Extremists never betrayed true values of any religion they belong to. No matter how religiously different we might be, tolerance and mutual respect are the only way to bring us together culturally.”
Lord Michael Williams, Peer of the House of Lords, of the British Parliament, moved the vote of thanks for Najib Makati.
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 Makati and throughout my three years in Lebanon Najib done in support and counsel, receiving in his home in Tripoli, in office Dakota and lately in the Brunson.”
Speaking about former Prime Minister of Lebanon and his country, Lord Williams mentioned, “You come from a country of great tolerance and flexibility and it is something in Lebanon that has shown throughout its history. Remarkably people seldom know this that Jewish population in Lebanon went up in 1940, not down and the reason for this is many Jewish people particularly those who are very settler of the left, politically from Syria and from Iraq, came to Lebanon and the latest 1968 I think there was still functioning Synagogues and that sort of tradition of openness you sustained under the great pressure.”
“We see it now the enormous toll that the Syrian War has taken on Lebanon. The way you hosted huge numbers hundreds and thousands,” Lord Williams mentioned and he said he felt shame to say that we have only a few hundreds in spite of our own traditions. Lord Williams also added, “But in Lebanon you have held firm to your traditions; and you have not being without attention to your own city Tripoli, home to Alawites community.”
“Most remarkable thing is that you managed to cope with those tensions,” he said.
Lord Williams recollected while mentioning about tradition of moderation that deep within Islam, he said, “I first went to Lebanon in 1973 as a doctor of student and then there was a civil war I had to leave. I went to another Muslim country but a very small country but I went to largest Muslim country; very very far apart. But that tradition of moderation and of willingness to live alongside and to recognise truths of religion something that remains very very strong. You yourself embodied I think that before you continue to play the very prominent role in your country particularly perhaps in days of a considerable” trial and tribulation.