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Words and Deeds: Civilisations, an Alphabet of Tolerance and the Caliphate

Words and deeds are now the apparent battle-lines between civilisations. Even among Muslims, ‘moderates’ are pitted against ‘extremists’ in a conflict that is depicted to be global and ubiquitous. The recent attacks in Paris culminating in the murder of a hundred and thirty people in very ordinary and innocuous spaces of human activity such as a music concert and restaurants point to the subversion of these very spaces into an ostensible civilisational clash. Claims by a ‘caliphate’ located in Syria and Iraq that this massacre was ordered by it are a sensationalist and nihilistic attempt to project its power. Physical might in all of its brazen dismissal of the moral worth of human beings cannot conceive of alternative ways of thinking, feeling, believing and acting according to an Islamic worldview. Plurality in the world and among Muslims are unimaginable.

Nonetheless, no clash between or within civilisations is on the horizon. Talk about civilisations, barbarism or clashes are firmly rooted in the ethnocentric historical narrative of a linear evolution of the West while the rest (the non-West), deemed to be backward, have to play catch up. While cultures and traditions do acquire a semblance of concreteness and a high degree of internal coherence, it is ultimately because human beings reproduce them, unconsciously or consciously, in a variety of settings and situations. As a corollary, it can be broadly said that human beings ‘control’ cultures (by extension religions) and civilisations in the ambivalence of the mundane as opposed to the quasi-sacred metaphor of a transhistorical force irresistibly sweeping aside all that stands in its way including human beings. Nothing is inevitable, especially violence, but is contrived by individuals and groups often with deliberate intent or as a result of the law of unintended consequences.

Perverse and gratuitous acts of violence tend to generate a logic that demands nothing less than the constant de-humanising of both subjects (victimisers) and objects (victims). The attacks on civilians in Paris and the civil war in Syria, claiming the lives of over two hundred thousand people, are connected in the geopolitical imagination through self-destructive violence by the perpetrators aiming to wreak vengeance against a France that is part of a wider bombing campaign against Daesh or the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS). All sense of the dignity of humanity is lost. What has also been lost in the thunderous stream of images and sounds is the recognition of Islam’s contribution to the collective and constantly changing enterprise of being human: the nobility of the Caliphate of each human being. Rather, brutal violence and terror are associated with Islam in the global imaginary. Islamophobia is reaching new heights in Europe and North Africa with fleeing Syrian refugees becoming objects of fear and loathing.

It is crucial to note that the self-description of a caliphate by Daesh, in the territorial sense of the word, does not and will not make so in the eyes of the inhabitants dwelling in Raqqa or Mosul let alone for the 1.6 billion Muslims all over the world. Forced coercion in matters of the conscience or brutal violence similarly cannot claim the moral designation of ‘Islamic’ simply based on a rhetoric that is frequently contradicted by deeds. The living traditions of Muslims passed down from generation to generation in an alphabet of tolerance stands overwhelmingly at odds with the bizarre displays of nihilism from Daesh and other militant groups. Peace and the preservation of life, Muslim or non-Muslim, cannot be sacrificed for an imagined return to an essentially humanly contrived conception of the caliphate that was never, contrary to what some may believe today, considered to be synonymous with God’s will.

The alphabet of tolerance comes from understanding faith, in the words of the Islamicist Wilfred Cantwell Smith, for whom living faithfully was worth pursuing, to be “a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen to oneself at the level of immediate event.” Unruly and violent expressions claiming to be Islamic in spirit and form fail this test of magnanimity in the face of some of the cruellest conditions currently plaguing the Middle East: Syria’s civil war has witnessed nearly a quarter of a million people dead and mass exodus within and without since 2011. Civilians continue to bear the brunt of aerial bombing from Syrian and foreign fighter planes.

Frank and respectful conversations on violence, religion and politics across religious and cultural divides need to take place. Surely lessons about living faithfully on the one hand and resisting tyranny and injustice on the other hand, from the past and the present, can be learnt from speaking and listening to others. But geopolitics and regional rivalries have made such conversations appear to be a luxury that the inhabitants of the Middle East and in other places can ill afford. In these trying times, lifting above (without ignoring) the prevailing ideological, economic and political struggles requires the spirit of resolve not to fall victim to the darkness that lurks in a loss of identity or the narrow confines of a fanatical conviction. All religious and non-religious beliefs can and do equally give rise to magnanimity and fanaticism and the living traditions of Islam will, if given breathing space, continue to nourish, through courageous individuals, the ennobling of all humanity expressed in the notion of a moral and personal Caliphate. 

Mohammed Moussa has been awarded his doctorate on renewal in the Islamic tradition at the University of Exeter, Exeter and is now undertaking a postdoctoral research fellowship at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He is a Muslim Institute Fellow. One of his chief interests, among many, is the Arabo-Islamic heritage as part of a broader and richer experiment called humanity