Nations and Forest Fires

Nations and Forest Fires

It was 1984. The second and last formal employment of my career was in the tea plantations in the Anamallai Hills in Coimbatore District of Tamilnadu. I worked there for seven years, one of the most enjoyable and instructive periods of my life. Fires and estates are companions. Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. A forest fire is easy to start. One cigarette butt is enough. But if it catches, then it can’t be put out until there’s nothing left to burn. In the end, all that is left is ash. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for me to watch animals as they came down to drink.

One day late in the afternoon someone came running to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations, emergencies were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed, and they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.

As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the place, I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was burnt, we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat it to death. There was no water available where we were, otherwise, we would have also wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure. The story didn’t end here but for this article, this is enough.

The whole logic of fighting forest fires is about preventing them from starting. And if they do start, then trying to prevent them from growing. If this is not done, then once a fire grows beyond a certain size, nothing can put it out until everything that can burn has been burnt. The fire will die only when everyone and everything is dead. And all that is left is ash.

Today, as I reflect on global politics as well as its local reflection in my country, I am reminded of forest fires and my own experience of fighting one in the Anamallais. It appears that none of the leaders either on the global stage or the even more critical local ones, has ever seen or fought a forest fire. That is why they so blithely ignite and stoke the fires of hatred. Racial hatred, communal hatred and religious hatred. They know not what they do but regardless, we, every single one of us, will burn if we allow this to go on unchallenged and unanswered. Fire can’t be fought with fire. It must be fought with something that is cool and which is not inflammable. So also, hatred can’t be fought with hatred, but with love. Loving someone who hates you is not easy. It seems impossible. But the alternative is to burn in the same fire.

In human relations terms, ignorance is combustible. It is the substance that is used to ignite the fire of hatred and to stoke it by demonizing the object of hate. The real purpose is to sow discord and terror, so that we are all reduced to the same level, joined only in our fear of one another rooted in ignorance. Then we become malleable and controllable through fear. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. In a society like ours which is based on caste differences that discriminate against other people based on their ethnicity (race), to get people to hate someone for something as ridiculous as what they eat, drink, wear or worship is very easy. We already live in a society where we are taught that some of us are superior to others for no fault of ours or theirs. It is just that we were born into this or that caste and so that not only makes us superior, but it means that we get to look down on others and consider them to be dirty, sub-human, unworthy of associating with and to always be treated with contempt. Since this entire edifice is built on an accident of birth, it means that it is permanent and there is nothing that anyone can do to change that. That leads to the logical progression of despising and hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to, because that makes me feel superior and good, once again free of cost.

To continue to feel good, all I need to do is to perpetuate this lie from generation to generation and ensure that the hatred and contempt stays alive. For this there are some requirements; deny anything good that the target population may have done, no matter how clear and substantial the evidence. Mock and disparage their identity, beliefs, culture and customs and demonize them by interpreting them in negative ways. Re-write history in a way that removes all evidence of their contribution to the nation and world and replace that with cherry-picked or manufactured stories of their ‘sins’. Pick a time period that is ancient enough to ensure that nobody from the time is alive to defend themselves and do all this so aggressively that those who are alive today, are intimidated enough to remain silent and watch their heritage being trashed. The idea is to eventually have a situation where even the memory of the contributions of those people is lost and all sense of self-esteem is taken from them. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works.

Once again, what is the solution? For a solution we must find and implement if we are not all to be consumed in the forest fire that we lighted or allowed to be lighted while we watched. The first part of the solution is to reject every ideology that teaches that you are either superior or inferior because of the accident of birth. All such ideologies of being the ‘chosen of god’, are an insult to humanity and God. All such ideologies are false, dangerous and destructive and must be trashed. For the record as far as my own religion, Islam is concerned, let me quote from the sermon of the Prophet Muhammad(S) during his last Hajj where he said, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white (person) has no superiority over a black, nor does a black (person) have any superiority over a white; except by piety and good action.”  Now that is clear enough and needs no elaboration. We are all equal in our humanity and the only measure of goodness is the goodness we spread around us.

The second part of the solution is to give names and faces to the labels that we are confronted with. Labels seeking to create the ‘Other’ in our minds. Labels that if we don’t question and see them for what they are, make it possible for us to reject others. Labels are distant, disembodied and impersonal. That makes it possible to hate those to whom they apply. Names are known and personal; faces are recognizable. They make us stop to consider what we think, say or do about those people. Let me illustrate with my own example, how a name changes the complexion of a label.

I am Muslim. But when I hear the label ‘Agnostic/Atheist’, I see Aunty Mohini and Uncle Rama’s faces. The two people who were my mentors in childhood and youth and role models, lifelong. They enabled me to discover myself and opened my heart and mind to appreciate others. When I hear the label Sikh, I see the faces of Gurcharan, Gurveen Kaur, Anup and Sandy. When I hear the label Hindu, I see the faces of AMM Arunachalam, Renuka & Aditya Mishra, Purba & Sanjoy Sanyal, Nikoo Rawlley, Arun Menon and Gudducha (Jaikant Chaturvedi). When I hear the label Christian, I see the faces of Berty & Jenny Suares, Thambi Kurien, Ranjan Solomon, Norman & Lorraine Wood. When I hear the label Buddhist, I see the faces of Rose, Ivo and Alvito Baretto. When I hear the label Jew, I see the faces of Kathy, Dennis Goodman, David and Jeffrey Solomon. When I hear the label Christian Missionary, I see the faces of David and Miriam Ramse and Thurston Riehl. When I hear the label Parsi, I see the faces of Jehangir Ghadiali, Naushi and Mehru Tarapore. When I think of communal riots, I think of Uncle Raman Kumar who came with a police escort through the curfew to give us food grains. I think of Norman Lindie in Guyana who shielded me with his own body from a man who had come to attack me with a knife. I think of Peter Ramsingh, who was my constant companion in our innumerable camping trips through the rain forests, up and down the Berbice River. These are by no means the only people I know under these ‘categories’. There are many, many more. This is only to make my point that when you have a face to a label, it becomes personal. With each of them, I have many pleasant memories associated. Of happy times, helping one another, just being with one another and enjoying each other’s company and difference. So, deal with people, not labels.

The benefit of becoming personal is that I have a frame of reference when I hear or read something hateful about the ‘category’ which in my mind and life experience is represented by a name and face of a friend. I find it impossible to hate anyone, but even if this were not the case, I would have cause to stop and reflect, if I have a frame of reference against which to compare what I am being asked to believe. Without that and given the unique human tendency to believe the negative more easily than the positive, rumor becomes real and the lie becomes the truth. Today the problem is that thanks to our highly urbanized and apparently self-sufficient (but really isolationist) way of life, we manage to live in the same apartment building for decades without even knowing the name of our neighbor, let alone anything more. Our civic spaces are disappearing.  Hence civilized interaction and dialogue. Even schools are ‘segregated’. Not officially but children don’t seem to have friends, except among their own kind. Racist language is rampant and normal. Discrimination seems to be the order of the day. Even the question of a child going to the home of a friend, not from his/her religion or ethnicity, to spend an overnight or weekend with their family, doesn’t arise. Our conversation mentions other people, their religion and culture, but always in disparaging words. Never with respect and appreciation. Our world view has become totally color blind – black and white. We don’t even see the racist overtone in the term, Black & White. We have lost our frame of reference. We are blind, waiting to be led down the road of someone else’s choosing.

This must change. This is the fire-break that we must build. The essential fire prevention strategy if we want to protect ourselves from annihilation. We must open our eyes and ears, homes and hearts, to others. We must stop ‘Othering’ each other. We must learn to observe with respect and without being judgmental. We must learn to appreciate difference and not reduce all difference to good (like me) and bad (different from me). It is variety that adds color to the scenery. Variety is another name for difference. We must consciously examine the assumptions that we have become used to and treat as ‘The Truth’. We must face the fact that they are baseless assumptions, rooted in bigotry. As Reza Aslan put it very aptly, ‘Religion doesn’t make people bigots. People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology.’ The question each one of us needs to ask is, ‘Am I a bigot?’ I can imagine that in today’s world, the answer may well be, ‘Yes’, in all cases with a difference only in degree. As a starting point, I would say that it is enough to ask this question and then ask another one, even more painful. ‘Am I willing to do anything to change this?’ That is when we can start thinking of what we must do.

So, what must we do?

Monitor conversations. At home, in the workplace, especially in our schools and in public. It is ‘domestic legends’ which shape our worldview from a very early age. We need to reflect on how we were conditioned and become conscious of how we are conditioning our children. Most conditioning is unconscious and extremely powerful and very difficult to undo, unless we make a serious effort. Monitoring conversations will give us diagnostic evidence of the degree of change we need to make. It is important to do this objectively with a no-praise-no-blame mindset. The idea is to see how serious the terminal disease which afflicts us is and see what we need to do, to cure it. For terminal it is. Hatred is fire. All fires burn and the result is always ash.

Then we need to create civic spaces to meet in and practice being civilized. We need to develop the skills to speak about each other, our beliefs, culture, customs and traditions with respect. We must visit each other, participate in each other’s lives and do it with respect and without being judgmental. We must ask questions, respectfully and strongly oppose all mockery of people different from us, even if and especially when it is done in the name of ‘humor’. Laughing at someone is not humorous. Reject outright anyone who preaches hatred or mocks others; whether that is your priest or preacher, teacher or political leader, uncle or mother. We need to become open-minded enough to try to understand the reason why other people do things differently from us and not only accept that but appreciate it as another way of life which has an equal right to exist. We must deal with the fear that if we do this, we will need to ‘convert’ to their way. We won’t. What will happen though is that our minds and hearts will expand, which is a very good thing for all minds and hearts. Even ours. We will become more understanding, accepting, respectful and impervious to manipulation by those who wish to fill our hearts with hatred for others, so that we become tools in their hands to achieve their own ends.

It was a very hot day in May, 1991. Very dry, at the peak of summer with the monsoon another month away. I was driving through Thirunelveli District on my way back from Madurai where I had gone to attend a Labour Court hearing. These were the days before car air-conditioning in India, so the car was a moving oven. Suddenly the moving oven stopped moving. A tyre was punctured. My driver Santiago pulled over to the side. I got out of the car as it was simply too hot to sit inside. Santiago didn’t need any help, he said, so I looked around. I saw that we had stopped by some fields which in the monsoon would be planted with rice, but which at this time were simply baked, dry clay fractured into pieces according to whatever natural law was at work. There was not a blade of grass or anything green in sight. Except that is, for two small Neem trees, which had been planted by the roadside. Beside the trees, with its back to them and facing the field was a mud hut. It must have been about twenty feet long and had a grass thatch roof. Between the trees, which were at either end of the hut, the ground had been swept clean and sprinkled with sand. Under each tree, in the scant shade was a stone bench. It was really a stone fence post laid flat on two short raisers about two feet in height. I was intrigued to say the least about how this whole thing was obviously planned and prepared. Who would bother to make this seating arrangement and why?

I sat on one of the benches to see what would happen. In a little while a young boy came out of the hut with a brass water pot and a steel tumbler and poured me a tumbler full of tepid water. I had many thoughts about the origin of the water and its hygiene but didn’t want to interfere with whatever was at work here. So, I accepted the water and drank it. The boy went to Santiago and poured some water for him also. Then he set the pot down and sat with Santiago to provide him with moral support in changing the tyre of the car. A couple of minutes later, his mother called him. He took his pot and departed, only to emerge with two glass tumblers of tea. His mother came out as he finished giving the tea to me and Santiago, with a plate of Murku – the twisted savory snack that is very popular all over Tamilnadu and South India. I thanked her and took one, thinking all the time that the mystery had been solved. We had been fortunate enough to break down near a tea-shop and so we were now being served.

We finished our tea and the tyre was changed. I got up and asked the boy how much money I owed them for the tea and snack. He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Onnum illayingay.’ (Nothing, Sir.) He used the respectful form of address which given the difference in our ages, our mutual social positions and the culture of Thirunelveli was natural. I thanked him but told him to ask his mother. He went into the hut and the lady came out, her head covered with the tail of her sari (pallu) and said, ‘This is not a shop Sir. Your car broke down, so I thought that maybe you would like a cup of tea and made it for you. That is all. There is nothing to pay. You are our guest.’ I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing in my experience to handle this, except unless I went back almost 30 years earlier to my time with Gond tribals in Adilabad, where I also encountered such generosity of spirit from people who had nothing. In this case, it was Diwali next day. So, I took out Rs. 100 and folded the note and put it in the pocket of the youngster and said, ‘This is for Diwali sweets for you.’ His mother tried to object but I said to her, ‘I am like his elder brother. Please allow me to give him a gift for Diwali.’ She smiled and nodded. And we left. This happened in 1991. This is 2019. The memory is alive.

Our education and sophistication seem to build walls and teach us to despise one another. These people were among the poorest in the world, deprived, discriminated against, so-called lower caste. Yet their hearts were full of compassion, generosity and abundance. What is the secret? It is to see another human being as a human being. Shorn of our titles and labels. Just another human being. This is what we need to learn and teach. This is the secret of putting out fires and of survival. This is our lifeline.

It’s not about Sri Lanka

It’s not about Sri Lanka

It’s about me.

This is such a time

My mind is numb, my heart is heavy, the tears have dried,

Yet the day dawns and life must be lived,

Unanswered, unanswerable questions,

Actions, reactions, a vicious cycle that must be broken.

As I sit down to write this, my biggest struggle is with myself, ‘Should I write this or not? What use is it? Surely the next planner or executor of the next atrocity is hardly going to ask – Let me see what Yawar Baig has to say before I do this. So why write?’ It is easier to simply do nothing. Withdraw into my shell and hope that one day what happened in Sri Lanka yesterday, doesn’t happen to my own loved ones. How then did I break out of this stupor of grief? By reminding myself of one thing: Those who were killed in Sri Lanka were my dear ones, because anyone who is killed because of his/her religion, race or nationality is my dear one. So, I will speak. I will raise my voice. And I will do it, even if I am alone. Especially if I am alone.

In my view the real purpose behind these actions is not the elimination of any population. That in today’s world is literally impossible. The real purpose is to sow discord and hatred, so that we are all reduced to the same level as the perpetrators of these crimes. Then we become malleable and controllable and are controlled through fear. Fear of our own neighbors, brothers and sisters, fear of our own family members in the global family of humans. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. That leads to the logical conclusion of hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works. This is what was used against the Jewish people for centuries in Europe and Russia which led to their ghettoizing and eventually to Hitler’s infamous Final Solution, which educated, moral and (presumably) kind people, watched in silence. Today Muslims seem to be in that boat. It is salutary to note that Hitler’s gas chambers were built by highly educated engineers and scientists. So, for those who think that large scale violence amounting to genocide is something that is left to Attila the Hun, it may be shocking to see that education as we know it is not the solution to our problem. Because our problems are moral and ethical. Problems of our humanity. Not problems of not knowing enough math and science. There are lessons in history and one of the most powerful ones lies in the Jewish Holocaust. It is essential to learn the lessons because nations that don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

As I mentioned earlier, the main purpose of hate attacks is to cause chaos and disruption of society and turn one person against another. This creates a smoke screen which hides real issues. When people are immersed in grief and anger and are looking to hit back, they are not thinking clearly and all they need is a target. That is provided by implying that anyone from the community, religion, ethnicity, race or nationality of the criminal is like him and so can be made a victim in ‘retaliation’. That allows people to vent their anger on innocent people, creates an atmosphere of terror and buys time for those who want in reality to draw the curtains over their own faults and deficiencies i.e. the failure of leadership to solve people’s real problems of hunger, unemployment, lack of access to public health and education, lack of clean drinking water and housing. The issues vary from nation to nation, but it is always a mix of these. Don’t solve real problems, divert people’s attention to hating others, allow them to vent their anger on those who are helpless, and you buy some more time. Those who should really be held to account, voted out, removed from leadership and made to pay, are let off free to plan the next episode in this macabre horror drama called ‘Life in the Modern World’.

But all this will happen, only if we allow it to happen. That is the key and the reason we must ask ourselves, “Do I want this cycle to continue?”

Given that this is a no-brainer, what is the solution? Let me tell you about a unique experience I had just two days ago, on Saturday, April 20, 2019. I was invited to a Passover Seder dinner by some very dear Jewish friends. This was the first time that I was going to a Passover Seder and so I was very interested in what I would see and experience. To accommodate my inability to participate in a meal during which wine would be served, in a completely unprecedented and totally gracious gesture (very pleasant surprise for me), this family made the meal completely alcohol free and drank pomegranate juice instead of wine. This they did despite the fact that drinking four cups of wine is a part of the Passover Seder ritual. What amazed me even more was that the Rabbi who led the proceedings, also accepted this accommodation. Truly a most gracious gesture which left me feeling so very valued and appreciated.

The Passover Seder is about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, which is a story that as a Muslim, I grew up with. The story of Musa (Moses) and how he liberated the Jews from the slavery of Pharaoh, is familiar to every Muslim child. It is one of the major stories in the Qur’an as Musa (Moses) is one of the major prophets of Islam, believing in whom is a part of our creed. But what was new to me was the whole Seder meal and what is read during it. The overall theme of the readings was thankfulness. Thankfulness for all the bounties of God that He gave the Jews and of course all of us. What struck me the most was the song of fifteen stanzas each line of which ends with the word, Dayenu (meaning ‘it would have been enough’), but He gave more. This struck me because this is precisely the Muslim understanding of God (Allahﷻ) and His Grace, Mercy and Generosity, that He gives without counting. The overall and overwhelming sense that I came away with that night was that of belonging, not of difference. Strange thing perhaps to hear from a Muslim talking about a Jewish household and ceremony in today’s times. But that is how I felt, the warm glow of which remains with me.

Why is this important and why am I mentioning this here?

It is because in this lies the seed of the solution to hatred. Hatred comes from not knowing about each other, which leads to the situation among most people of being able to believe the worst about them. This is the way stereotypes are formed and strengthened until they become ‘THE TRUTH’, to be believed unquestioningly. On the other hand, when we take the time to learn about each other, we are often faced with some startling facts, which lead us to question our blind beliefs and stereotypes and hopefully allow us to change our stances. I recall my childhood where I grew up among Marwari Hindus as neighbors and went initially to a Christian (Anglican) Missionary school and began my day singing the Lord’s Prayer in the Chapel. I come from a family of practicing Muslims and so my own religion was always familiar. As a result of this eclectic upbringing, I didn’t convert to either Christianity or Hinduism but grew up learning a lot about both religions and communities, by living with them. We lived in each other’s homes, ate together (keeping to our own food laws strictly), celebrated each other’s festivals and didn’t feel that our own religion was threatened by this mutual understanding. I have written about this in detail in my book, ‘It’s my Life’ and so won’t repeat it here. Please read the book. You’ll enjoy it.

I am speaking of this here because the one big thing that happened thanks to this upbringing is that today, when someone tries to tell me about how bad and vicious Hinduism or Christianity are, I have the frame of reference of both from my own life experience against which to check what I am hearing. I reject these messages because I didn’t experience these religions or those who follow them, in that way at all. Ditto Judaism, from my experience which I described above. Therefore, the first and most important thing to do is to ensure that we get to know one another, personally, experientially and closely.

I am therefore able to distinguish and differentiate between the action of someone who professes to belong to a particular religion but does things that are prohibited in that religion. That, in my opinion, places that individual, outside his religion. He is not a representative of his religion and his actions are the result of his rejecting his religion, not of practicing it. So, I reject that individual and his actions, not his religion. In my view, in the case of those who are responsible for the mass murder in Sri Lanka that happened on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019; those people are criminals and must be treated as such. They must be caught and punished to the full extent of the law. On no account must we accept their professed logic of representing this or that religion and on that account buy into the negative, toxic philosophy of hating that religion or its adherents, who are our neighbors and family. We must do this because we must defeat this hate-filled thinking that is sought to be imposed on us. We can only do this if we reject it. Not if we buy into it.

If not me, then who? If not now, then when?

 I am reminded of a story I heard in 1997, about the man who used to stand before the White House every night holding a candle, in his struggle to have the UN sanctions against Iraq, lifted. One night, it was cold and wet and windy. But the man was there in his place, holding an umbrella and trying to protect his candle from the rain.

The guard at the gate, who used to see him every day, came out to him and said, “Tell me why do you do this? Do you really think you can change them?”

The man replied, “I don’t do this to change them. I do it so that they won’t be able to change me.”

It is very important that we speak out. The time for silence is over. The time for action is here.


Influencing without authority

Influencing without authority

 One of the areas of my responsibility was the Commissary. This was the company owned department store from where you got your weekly supply of food and practically everything else you needed. It had a small frozen foods section, rough wooden shelves with rice, flour, lentils and other groceries stacked on them, farming tools, alcohol and beverages, tea, sugar, condiments and flavors, seeds, and fertilizer for the vegetable gardens that most people had. There was a small display of regular shirts, pants, and Dishikis. Basic needs for everyday life in the mining town. Since this was the only store in town, it did good business. All the stuff came across the Berbice River by the bus or up the river by barge. The object of the Commissary was not to make profit and some things were even subsidized by the company. It was more a social obligation as well as a necessity if you wanted to run a mining town in the middle of the rain forest.

One day, thanks to one of the periodic economic crises that we used to go through, there was no rice in the store for several weeks. Things got pretty bad as rice is a staple of the Guyanese people. Kwakwani being a mining town in the forest had the advantage that most people had vegetable gardens where they grew cassava, bananas and tapioca, so nobody was starving but tempers were high. Their  anger was really against the government of President Forbes Burnham, who was Head of the PNC (People’s National Congress), but in a communist (called socialist, but really communist) dictatorship the first thing you learn is to keep your mouth shut about the Party and the President. But anger must be vented. So, the most convenient target was the Company and its Management; though everyone was fully aware that the Company was as helpless as they were individually both in creating the financial crisis as well as in resolving it. Actually, come to think of it, a shortage of rice in Guyana was like a shortage of coal in New Castle. It was more a matter of distribution than of production. The two major agricultural exports of Guyana were rice and sugar and so not having rice in the country was ridiculous. But that is exactly what happened on this occasion. So, people were very angry.

Then one day, rice came. The store keeper, Griffith, unloaded it and packed it into 2 kilo bags, stacked them on the shelves and was ready to open the store. A crowd had collected in front of the store and like most such situations, a combination of old resentment, misplaced anger, and short tempers, things started to get a little hairy. Griffith phoned the Office and I took his call. He said, “Yawar, things are bad here. Looks like there will be a riot and they will break into the store and loot it. They are calling for Nick. Is he there?” Nick had gone to Linden that day for a meeting and hadn’t returned. So, I said, “Nick is not here, but I will be with you in five minutes.” Griffith sounded very doubtful. He said, “Man!! These guys are sounding nasty. I ain’t know if you can handle it.” Now say that kind of thing to a 24-year-old with red blood in his veins and what do you get?? Off I went to the store. The store was about a kilometer down the hill from the Admin. Office and so I was there in less than the five minutes that I promised Griffith.

The store was built on a concrete plinth platform with steps on either side which you had to climb up to get to the door. I parked my Land Rover to one side and walked up to the crowd. They let me through, and I climbed up the stairs and stood on the platform and what do I see? A huge crowd of men and some women, all shouting and cursing (and boy, could those Kwakwani people curse!!) …. many men with guns slung on their shoulders and cutlasses in their hands. Now these guns and cutlasses really meant no harm in themselves as that was the way the men went to their farms in the jungle. As it was evening, they were all headed there and had stopped by the store. But the mood was ugly, and the guns and cutlasses were there.

I raised my hand and the noise died down. I said, “The rice is here. We are sorry for the shortage, but you know this is not in our hands. But it is here now. Please form a line and come and get it in an orderly manner.” There was a moment’s silence as I said this. Then the shouting started again. “Ya rass coolie man wanna come and tell a’we Guyanese how to live?? Who the rass is you to tell a’we anytin?”  I realized that this was not the normal Kwakwani Guyanese I was listening to. Somebody had started this ‘we versus the foreigner’ thing and it was catching on. This was the beast of the mob, which has a mind of its own. At times like this, I believe that if you face the situation with courage you are taught what to say. Later you can analyze it and wonder why you said what you did. But at that time, it is spontaneous and right. I let them shout for a few seconds and then yelled at them, “You wanna come and loot this store, you gotta kill me first.”

My worry was never about my life but that I would fail in my task. I could not believe that Kwakwani people would harm me; that is the normal Kwakwani person. But this was a mob. It was entirely likely that they would call my bluff and I would die. They would regret it later, but I would be dead. All it needed was for someone to fire from the crowd or throw a cutlass and the deed would be done. Mobs give their members the immunity of invisibility and people can do strange things in such circumstances. The situation was definitely getting out of my control and I was wondering what to do, when suddenly Morris Mitchell (Chinee, the truck driver who I had mentioned earlier) jumped up onto the platform. He was also on the way to his farm, so he was wearing a much-used shirt, jeans, his cap backwards on his head, cutlass in his hand. Chinee was a big man. He was well over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds, all muscle. His wrists were a foot wide (or at least they looked like they were) and his hands were like shovels. I remember one day he was sitting in my office and lazily squeezed a tack (nail) into a piece of hard green-heart wood that I used to keep as a paper weight. Squeezed it into the wood. Not hammered—squeezed. Get it??

Well, he jumped up onto the platform and in a voice that was used to being heard over the roar of truck and bulldozer engines shouted, “A’yo raas lisen and lisen good. You wanna kill dis baay? You gotta kill me fus. And a’yo raas know, I ain’t gonna die alone. So, who ready??” As in any mob situation, there is a critical incident that changes the mood. This was the one here. Suddenly someone started laughing and said, “Man Chinee. Yawar a’we baay man!! Nobody ain’t gonna do nothn to he! A’we just mad at the company man!! Anyway, the rice dey ere an so leh we go’n get it. Stand in a line folks. We ain’t ga all night!!” And that was that. All that camaraderie apart, the reality is that if Morris Mitchel had not stood by my side, there is no saying what would have happened. Seeing him with a cutlass in his hand had a sobering effect and broke the mood of the mob and people came to their senses. As I say, Guyana is beloved to me because of its people. Amazing people who would cheerfully put their own lives on the line for a friend.

With Nick Adams on the Kwakwani trail, 1997

The incident did not end there for me. When Nick got back, instead of a pat on the back, I got my ear burned off for being a hero. Nick was angry at me for putting my life in danger for no good reason. He wouldn’t believe that the Kwakwani people wouldn’t have harmed me. He said he knew mobs and that they had a life and will of their own. People did things in the mob frenzy which they may well regret later, but the damage would be done. He was angry, but said he respected my courage and standing on principle and that he would personally ‘fry my butt’ if I ever did such a thing again. It was said with so much love and concern for me that I only grew to respect and love the man even more. He said to me, “Your father told me to look after you when he left you here and I gave him my word. If you had died today what would I tell Dr. Baig? Never do this kind of thing again. You hear me?” “Yessah! I hear you.” I heard you that day and I hear you every time I think of you. I hear your words, I hear the tone, I hear the love, the responsibility, and the honor. I hear it and I bless you and thank AllahY that He gave me you as my first boss so that I could learn from you how to be a man. And He is witness that you taught me very well. Nick was a father to me in a strange land where I was alone, and I loved him like my own father.

That is one of the many lessons that I owe to Nick. Another was in hospitality and consideration. The first time it happened I was astonished. Then it became a regular feature. One weekend Nick called me and asked me to go over to his place. When I walked over, I saw that he had a pen full of live chickens (about 10-12 in all) and a knife. He said to me, “Ya-waar, can you please slaughter these in your way? I will put them in the freezer so that we are sure we give you these when you come over to our place to eat.” What do you say to such a man?

To return to our story, these were the days of President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham’s presidency. The PNC (People’s National Congress) was supreme. Race was the underlying thread in any conversation. I was not counted because I was a foreigner. But when I was among strangers, who took me to be Guyanese thanks to my fluency in Creolese, I could sense the tension. There was a lady in Kwakwani Mines Office called Patsy. Patsy was the secretary of the Mines Manager (the Big Boss), George Shultz as well as the District Coordinator of the ‘Party’. So, she was a big noise. Patsy was several years older than I was and didn’t like me one bit and tried initially to make trouble for me by embarrassing me. One day she called out to me in a loud voice, ‘Comrade Baig, do you know the meaning of screw?’ There was an immediate hush and an expectant silence. All the typist girls in the room looked up waiting to laugh their heads off expecting me to beat a hasty embarrassed retreat. But to their surprise and Patsy’s consternation, I turned around and said, ‘Patsy, you want me to tell you or you want me to show you?’ The office collapsed into shrieking laughter. You must see a West Indian African laugh to know the meaning of laughing. The whole body laughs, not just the mouth. And the person literally throws himself around the room, shrieking in delight. It got so loud that George Shultz came out of his office to see what was going on and on being informed, he joined in, much to Patsy’s disgust. But she learned her lesson and that was the last time she tried that trick with me. However, that was not the last of her attempts to make my life difficult.

Patsy would take time off on the pretext of ‘party work’ and disappear, leaving her work with others who resented this, but did not have the courage to tackle her. One day she did her usual disappearing act and then ended up in the Kwakwani Club having a drink during working hours. I was passing by and saw her and suspended her pending investigation. Patsy, as I mentioned, was the PNC District Coordinator and behaved as if she was the country’s President. Since she was in real life a secretary and that too in my office, I tried very hard to convince her that she had to at least pretend to work. But to no avail. So finally, I issued her a warning letter. That was like stepping on the tail of a mamba. Given her political powers, this was a slap in the face that she was not going to take lying down.

 Next morning Nick called me to his office. He had a grave look on his face. He asked me, ‘What happened between you and Patsy?’ I told him about the drinking incident and the following suspension pending investigation, which was according to the rule book. Nick was aware of Patsy’s doings himself but told me that the Minister of Mines had called him and asked him to enquire. I explained what I had done and Nick being a man with moral courage, supported me. He called the Minister and explained what had happened and why. I am amazed today, having seen a great deal of the world, how, given the political situation in Guyana of those days, Nick could have stood up for me. He taught me a lesson of standing up for your subordinates when they are right, and I will remember all my life. This is Nick for you. A man that I admire, respect, and love with all my heart.

The matter did not end with that because the lady in question would not let it rest. She demanded that I withdraw the suspension – I refused. So once again the Minister called Nick and said that he wanted to meet me. Nick said to me, ‘I just had a call from the Minister of Mines, Cd. Hamilton Green. Comrade Green wants to see you.’ I asked, ‘When?’ Nick said, ‘Now. So, get ready and go. Patsy has complained to him about you. I will support you in this so don’t worry but you must satisfy the Minister. Otherwise things can get difficult (he meant that I could summarily be sacked and sent back to India).’ But there was no escape as I was also not willing to back down from my stance, which I was completely convinced, was right. It was also a matter of asserting my authority without which my life would not have been worth living.

I arrived in Georgetown late in the afternoon after a 4-hour drive. I entered the ante-room where Cd. Green’s secretary sat. I introduced myself but it appeared that I was famous. They all knew me. I was not sure if I should be happy or alarmed about this. She told me, ‘Show your face through that window and he will open the door.’ The window was a little sliding shutter. I moved it aside and looked in as instructed. I saw a huge mahogany desk with an African gentleman sitting behind it, manicuring his nails. All the tools for this high precision job were laid out before him. He saw me peering through the glass and reached under the table top and pressed a button which released the lock so that I could go in. The door clicked shut behind me and there I was in the presence of the Honorable Minister of Mines, Cd. Hamilton Green himself. 

I realized that the whole office was furnished and arranged to intimidate and put the other at a disadvantage. Cd. Green’s manicuring was the strangest thing that I had ever seen and to this day I can’t think of why he did it. I remained standing. He looked me up and down and then gestured for me to sit. I took a chair a couple of seats away from him and waited for the crucial interview to begin.

‘So, Mr. Baig, you are from India?’

‘Yes Sir.’

‘What do you think of Mrs. Gandhi?’

‘I think she is a good leader Sir. She is good for our country.’

‘But some people don’t seem to like her, no?’

‘Isn’t that the case with most strong leaders Sir?’

‘Yes, that is true.’

Then he came to the point of the interview. “So, what’s the issue with our friend Comrade Daniels in Kwakwani?”

“Sir”, I said, “to put it politely, her attitude at work is an embarrassment to the Party that she represents. She does not work, plays politics, throws her weight around, and generally behaves as if she owns the place. I believe this is not the impression that the PNC wants to create among the people. I tried every way I could to convince her to be a good example that would be worthy of someone who is the District Coordinator, but she will not listen. So eventually, I had no alternative but to suspend her. I tried to advise her, but she is a strong woman.’

‘Strong woman, eh!’ He laughed. ‘Like Mrs. Gandhi maybe! So how do you like Guyana (Giyaana – is how he and most Guyanese pronounce it)?’

‘I like it very much Sir.’

‘You don’t miss your country?’

‘Everyone misses his country Sir. But Guyana and Guyanese have been so good to me that it feels like home. I have friends here who are like my own family. So, I don’t miss my country too much.’

‘Good of you to come Mr. Baig. It was nice to meet you.’

All the while Mr. Green continued to manicure his nails; filing, pushing back the cuticles and occasionally clipping an uncooperative piece. Strange way of conducting a meeting, I thought to myself. But such are the ways of the high and mighty. To give him his due, however, he was a fair man and gave me a chance to explain myself and then accepted the explanation when it made sense. I’m not sure how many people in his position in other countries would have been equally patient and understanding with a twenty-four year old foreigner who had taken a stance against one of their own Party functionaries.

I thanked him, walked the length of the table, the door buzzed as I came to it and opened, and I walked out. The secretary smiled at me and I left, returning to Kwakwani close to midnight and the matter was closed. The letter stuck and was not withdrawn and the lady in question toed the line. The Minister it seems told her where to get off. In the process, I acquired a huge amount of ‘respect’ because I had managed to make the reprimand stick by convincing none other than the Minister himself and because there were a lot of other poor sufferers who were delighted that the lady got what was coming to her. They did not have the power to do anything about it but were all silently rooting for me. There was an important lesson for me to take away; if you win, you will find that you have a lot of supporters. If I had been reprimanded by the Minister and ordered to withdraw the letter, then I don’t know how many of my supporters would have stood on the same side of the street when they saw me coming. Winners have many fathers and losers none. 

Two other lessons from this incident; the importance of building a good case and the importance of putting it in a way that makes sense to the listener from his perspective. ‘What’s in it for me?’ is a tune that everyone listens to. It’s about speaking the truth but doing it in a way that makes sense to the listener in ways that are important to him. Nick, needless to say, was delighted.

Next morning when I went to see Nick he was smiling and said, ‘Whatever you said to Hamilton Green, Patsy seems to have got an earful from him and I don’t think you are going to have any problems with her again.’ And that is indeed what happened. Mr. Green was a just man and understood what I told him and acted upon it immediately.

The Statesman within

The Statesman within

My friend asked me a question; Where are the statesmen? Where have they all gone? For the sake of some clarity, I defined statesmen as people who were highly respected for their integrity, were highly ethical and moral and showed long-term vision for their people and countries and spent their lives in helping their people achieve that vision and not in amassing personal wealth.  When I did my back-of-the-envelope analysis to see when this lifeform existed, I came to the period 1800’s-2000’s; a period of roughly 200 years. To give this a more appreciable face, take Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of this period and Nelson Mandela as the last statesman standing. With his death in 2013, they became extinct. So, what happened? What went wrong? How is it that there was a time when like the Woolly Mammoth, statesmen walked the earth but today they don’t. How is it that they failed to reproduce their kind? Is it because like the climate change that killed off the Mammoths; cultural, psychological climate change, made statesmen of the like of Lincoln and Mandela, perhaps icons to worship but not to emulate?

I did a back-of-the-envelope recall of history. What I have is as follows: Starting from the beginning of recorded history, we have states which were the property of rulers and their families. These rulers amassed wealth through conquest. It was a simple grab-what-you-can strategy, aided by ever more powerful weapons and military organization and tactics. That gave rise to the so-called ‘Great Conquerors’ starting with Alexander of Macedonia, and on to Julius and Augustus Caesars of Rome, Cyrus of Persia, Pharaohs of Egypt, Umayyads (Abbasids didn’t do any conquests), Genghis and his sons and grandsons, Ottomans, Saffavids, Moghuls, Spanish, British, French, Germans, Dutch, Portuguese, the Vatican (directly and indirectly) and the list goes on. All of them did one thing very well; i.e. wage war. They looted, plundered and colonized. Revenue sources for them were two; immediate plunder of warfare followed by taxation of the subject people. It is not for nothing that it is called ‘spoils of war’. War spoils. Never builds. All this continued to World War I and in a slightly different way, since nation states had by then taken the stage, it continued until World War II.

The point to be noted here is that the purpose of all war was conquest of territory, loot and subsequent tax revenue. In some cases, this was open and blatant. In others it was called ‘civilizing barbarians’, ‘Holy War’, ‘Crusade’, ‘White man’s burden’ and so on. Soldiers benefited both from the spoils of war which they looted on their own and what the ruler dished out when the counting was done. In the case of most rulers, their people were given land in the conquered territory and settled there as a prize of war for them and as a safety measure for the rulers. In the case of the Roman Empire as well as many others, this significantly changed the demography of the region and enabled better policing of those territories as well as tax collection. In short therefore, rulers ruled and amassed wealth because their people were willing to support them at the cost of their life if necessary, in exchange for the crumbs from the table.

Post the World Wars, came the period of decolonization. Freedom struggles started in all colonies. Some won their freedom after long, protracted and bloody conflict. Other colonies were freed because they were no longer financially viable to maintain as they had been bled dry and now the colonizing countries had to spend their own money to maintain the colony. So, they granted them ‘freedom’. These freedom struggles shifted the focus of people from materialism (amassing wealth through conquest) to higher goals of freedom, nation building, social change and realigning values. People had to and were ready to submit their personal aspirations to the higher goals of nationalism and patriotism. Freedom is heady stuff. It was during this period that we see the likes of Lincoln and Mandela; my two symbols of the kind of leader that one can call ‘statesman’ and not merely ‘politician’. There were others but these will suffice for this discussion especially as they bracket the period between 1800 and 2000.

Simultaneous with the wars and in many ways fueled by them, the Industrial Revolution metamorphosed into the military industrial complex that we are familiar with today, producing myriad products and services for mass consumption. Apart of course from weapons of war. People needed funds  to buy stuff and that fueled the banking system. It is not that there were no banks before World War II. Banking was well established with almost the same financial instruments from the time someone had money and someone else needed it. Jesus spoke about the bankers and money lenders. Shakespeare wrote about them. The Roman Empire ran its entire commerce through bankers. Medieval European monarchs, to a man (or woman) were in debt up to their gills. But after the World Wars and successful freedom struggles, banks became accessible to the common man and woman through what we know as ‘Commercial banking’. Money was made available, not for any altruistic reasons, but because owners of products needed a market for their produce and banks enabled those whose desires (or needs) exceeded their means, to achieve those desires by enslaving themselves to a payment schedule for the rest of their lives. That kept them out of trouble as they were too busy paying to worry about anything else, which suited those who ruled the roost. Rome invented the circus. We invented Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood. Both serve the same purpose. Keep people distracted and steer thought into the channels that the establishment wants them to think along. Add to this all the TV shows, football, cricket, shopping, advertising, social media, FB algorithms; all things that I don’t think I need to explain to anyone today. But do reflect on them to understand how you and I are fish on the end of the hook, enjoying the taste of the bait, not realizing that we are there for one reason only; to be reeled in for the fisherman’s sport and profit. Shopping, sports and sex are the formula from the beginning of recorded history to keep the population subjected, distracted and obedient.

The interesting thing is if you look at the demographic of the rulers, you will see that it has not changed at all, except perhaps for the kind of clothes they wear. That changed from chainmail covered by ermine and mink, to business suits. The ‘mailed fist’ became more symbolic but no less lethal. Pre-World Wars and down through the colonial period, the ‘ruling class’ was a small group of men (with the very rare woman) who ruled with only one motive; personal profit. The cost didn’t matter at all. If it meant annihilating an entire population (Aztecs, Incas, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, Hottentots, Bushmen, 2 million Indians…not end of list), then it was done by whatever means it took ranging from arranging a famine to smallpox infected blankets to simply separating the head from the body. Millions of Africans were enslaved and transported across the ocean to give their life and blood to build someone else’s nation. The list of what was done in the name of profit is well documented for the one who is interested in reading. It is not my purpose to go into it here.

The same profit motive continues, though the means have changed. Now the chains are greed and debt. The result is the same i.e. profit for the ruling class. That is why things that are clearly harmful to society are legal and are sold at a premium. I mean all kinds of addictive substances like alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco products, human bodies, gambling in many forms, the latest being football and cricket, porn (including child porn) … once again an endless list. Consumer perception is manipulated and influenced to make them buy this or that product and buy more. The infamous pharma racket is a case in point among many others. All to make profit, which is the final decider. I can’t forget to mention the biggest of them all, manufacture and sale of weapons of mass destruction. That is by far the most profitable which gives the best ROI. That is the reason there is more money invested in death than in life; in weapons research and manufacture than in cancer research and cure. When production and sale of weapons of mass destruction is a mainstay of the economy then all values, morals and peace vanish behind the smoke of bursting bombs and burning homes. Manufacturing weapons of mass destruction is the most immoral, despicable and abhorrent thing to do and has no moral justification. It must be stopped. It is the only reason for wars and as long as it exists wars will happen, and peace will remain an illusion.  When people who go to work in these factories turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what their effort, energy, intelligence and industry are creating and do it in the name of supporting their families, we must know that there is something very seriously wrong with our society.

Actually, hold on, nothing is wrong. It is business as usual. Wars happens because wars make profit. Peace doesn’t happen because peace doesn’t make profit. Hate sells because hate makes profit. Love doesn’t sell, because love doesn’t make profit. It is not about good or evil. It is about profit. Whatever makes profit is good. Whatever doesn’t, isn’t. It may not be called ‘evil’, but it certainly won’t get any traction, funding, facetime, airtime or any kind of time. That is why global warming, water conservation, clean drinking water, alternate energy, poverty alleviation are all dragging and will continue to drag because they don’t make profit.

What does all this have to do with statesmen, which is the subject of this essay?

It is my conclusion that the world hasn’t changed very much, if at all from the beginning of recorded history to the present moment. The ‘Statesmen Period’, was a brief interlude thanks to some special circumstances while the ruling class changed their ‘clothes’. When they were done, they took charge once again. They moved from direct control by military conquest to indirect (but equally strong) control through debt. The latter has proved to be even more profitable because it obviates the necessity of spending money to administer another land, collect taxes, fight insurgency from time to time, maintain your own administrators and myriad other elements of colonization. Much easier and cost effective to allow local rulers to do your work and we don’t pay for their sins. Taxes are replaced by sale markup with the benefit that the population gladly and willingly pays out, while they resent being taxed. Losing colonies worked out very well, thank you very much. All you need to do is build attractive tax-collection centers, aka Shopping Malls and revenue flows in. However, where the inflow of revenue is threatened for any reason by anyone, the mailed fist does the job. When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” Fredrick Bastiat. Armies cross borders to open the doors of commerce. While they are there, they help themselves to whatever they can; a well-known soldier’s prerogative. Compliant local rulers are supported and protected, no matter how brutal or corrupt they may be. Non-compliant rulers are removed, very publicly and brutally, both to clear the blockage as well as to demonstrate to potential aspirants what their fate would be if they dared to buck the system. As Fredrick Bastiat once again said, ‘When plunder becomes a way of life, men create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.’

Statesmen became extinct because there is no need for them any longer.

Let me hasten to mention what we can all see clearly, ‘the people’ are very happy with the current system. The beauty of materialism is that like cigarette smoking, the gratification is instantaneous while the harm is invisible. You draw the smoke into your lungs and feel so refreshed and relaxed while some more alveoli are filled with carbon and your lungs are primed for cancer. Only, you can’t see it happening, so it is easy to ignore, especially since you are addicted to smoking. We are all addicted to materialism, violence, promiscuity, sensationalism, instant gratification of desire. We are blind to the harm this does to us personally as well as to our society. We don’t care that our way of life is disastrous for those who share this planet with us, animals, birds, insects, or even the earth, air and water. We simply don’t care.

All our heroes are those who make the most profit. I challenge you to ask anyone to name the top five leaders that he/she admires, and I will guarantee you that it will be businessmen. Buffet, Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Dell – or some such combination, but businessmen. Ask what about them that they admire, and they will mention net worth. Which means the money they have. Not their character, learning, wisdom, compassion or anything else. Just the amount of money they have. I have asked this question umpteen times. Not once did anyone mention a great scientist, social activist, philosopher, theologian, scholar, poet, dramatist, artist, surgeon, astronaut, researcher or teacher. It is as if such people and their contribution have no value. By our choices, we have trashed centuries of contribution that ennobles us and raises us from merely grubbing for money. None of the qualities which make us uniquely human seem to count. Only money. Only profit. We don’t see any need for statesmen.

But do we need statesmen and women, whether or not we see the need for them?

A simple question to ask in this context is, ‘Was the world a better place when Abraham Lincoln and Mandela were in positions of power or when George Bush (and now Donald Trump) and Jacob Zuma were in power?’

I say we need statesmen like an alcoholic needs a deaddiction clinic. The alcoholic won’t accept it, but without it he will die and take his family down with him. We need people who are not focused on profit alone but who can show us how we can gain quality of life by focusing on ethics, values and morals. The challenge is to demonstrate this in ways that will still make profit for them. Statesmen happened because circumstances enabled, even enforced, the natural selection of the best to deal with the great goal of freedom. As I said, freedom is heady, and it is a goal that people are willing to work for. Political freedom we may have achieved. But freedom from poverty, corruption, discrimination, injustice, oppression are all goals which remain on the horizon, unachieved. What we need is statesmen (and women) who will address these goals and enable us, as a global society, to achieve them. If circumstances create statesmen, I submit that those circumstances exist even today. If only we can recognize and address them. The tragedy is that as in my analogy about smoking, instead of recognizing that materialistic pursuit of profit at any cost as the cancer it is, we seem have created a mindset where it has become an aspirational goal. That is why I suggested the test of asking about who our icons are. That will tell us what we aspire to become.

Today the challenge is to bring about a change in perception where people learn to see the benefit (profit in perhaps non-monetary terms) in compassion, justice, empowering the weak, alleviating poverty, education, public health, alternate energy, husbanding resources, conservation and such world building (not merely nation building) goals. It is to inspire and lead this new effort that we need statesmen and women. When we begin to see that we are all interconnected in a very real sense and that we can only swim together or we will sink, that we will hopefully be prepared to change the destructive lifestyles that we have become used to. Aspiring statesmen and women must invent ways to convince people to make this change. For that they must first believe and then they must lead by example. Each statesman is guided by his/her religious/nonreligious philosophy. Therefore, it all depends on which philosophy is guiding him/her. Statesmanship can be constructive/destructive. It all depends whether destructiveness will be called statesmanship! The world listens with its eyes. It doesn’t care what you say until it sees what you do. Statesmanship is about creating a need for value-based leadership and then fulfilling it. Statesmanship therefore must begin within ourselves. Within our families and neighborhoods. We need to inculcate values of care and concern, kindness and compassion, the willingness to extend ourselves for the sake of others, and to find personal fulfillment in it. We must understand that it is uniquely human to work to help others who can’t help us and to work for a time that we will not live to see. After all, that is the definition of vision. Given access to technology and open source material, I believe that all that a child needs today are literacy and numeracy. That takes less than one year of learning. After that the child has access to anything in the world that he or she wants to explore. To decide what that should be, the child needs a value system, a criterion for judgment and decision making. That is why value education is so critical. That is why skills of critical thinking, decision making, communication, conflict resolution and a sense of trusteeship are so essential. Sadly, almost nobody teaches them in any school curriculum and even more sadly both parents and people running schools, don’t see the need. Children are the voiceless victims of their elders’ apathy.

This is what must change. The statesman within must be nurtured and allowed to flower so that appreciable change can happen in the world. The reality is that true happiness doesn’t lie in a shopping mall or buying stuff or in consumerism. It lies in seeing the smile on a face where you had seen tears a little while earlier and to know that you were the reason for that change. That is truly inspiring, motivating and satisfying.

Anyone ready?

Something is happening

“Er! Ahem!! Excuse me, you may not have noticed but something is happening. My neighbor has imported a man-eating tiger to eat her mother-in-law.

She wants her MIL to become a MEAL.” (Ugh! Bad pun – or whatever).

“What after the tiger has finished the offending mother-in-law?”

“Well, my neighbor hasn’t thought about it that far. Maybe she thinks the tiger will conveniently disappear into the woodwork.”

“I don’t think so. It is a man-eating tiger. Not a mother-in-law eating tiger. I don’t think it cares about who it eats as long as it is human. Then it will be your neighbor herself, then her family and then you and me.”

“Er! Ahem!! I am not sure it is a good idea to say these things.”

“50 Muslims killed at Friday prayers in #NewZealandShooting by far-right fanatics”, say the headlines. Why do they call them ‘far-right’? They are far-far-wrong. It is not semantics. ‘Right’ has a nice ring to it. Right is just, justifiable, correct, accurate, fair and good. Killing 50 worshipers is none of these things. And then the man livestreams the killing. Let us begin by calling the animal by its correct name which is ‘fascism’. Not far-right, but fascism. Remember what happens when you don’t name the disease. Six million Jews died to teach us a lesson. Millions of Germans, otherwise ‘good’ people I suppose, remained silent and watched it happen. These Jews were not killed by rampaging hordes of barbarians. They were clinically murdered by scientists who developed ever more efficient ways to do it. Just like the man in New Zealand who not only killed innocent people but livestreamed his actions.

Social media platforms which don’t get tired of telling you how state-of-the-art their technology is and how it can catch and identify every message, allowed the video of cold-blooded murder, to travel all over the world, unremarked for many hours after it happened and until someone protested about it.  When someone can livestream murder of worshippers at prayer you know depravity has sunk to its lowest level. As I said, something is happening.

What is that something?

That something is the rapid normalization of hate. Hate has suddenly been legitimized and given pride of place. I lived and worked in America and among the things I taught there is the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 is the act which gives the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) authority to sue in federal courts when it finds reasonable cause to believe that there has been employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Yet today none other than the President of America himself, mocks, condemns and expresses hatred against Americans and others on all these bases. And apparently that is acceptable. The truth is that hatred has been stoked and nurtured at every level and it is international. That is what we must accept if we want a cure.

Just to recollect; the gunman who killed worshipers in Quebec, Anders Breivik in Norway, Donald Trump’s brazen anti-Muslim rhetoric, Boris Johnson’s vilification of Muslim women, Tommy Robinson, Katie Hopkins, Jayda Fransen, Paul Golding are all given prime time slots on mainstream media and allowed millions of followers on social media. In India, the rise of fascist views has grown in tandem with extremist Hindu groups supporting Trump and attacking Muslims. This is tacitly supported by a total lack of action against the criminals thereby encouraging them to do more. Israel routinely shoots Palestinian men, women and children. No comments. Communist China imprisons, rapes and tortures over a million Uighur Muslims in the name of fighting extremism. Allegedly peace-loving Buddhists of Myanmar, led by the infamous Aung San Suu Kyi, slaughter and dispossess their Rohingya Muslim citizens with impunity. The list is endless, but this will suffice for what I need to say.

Killing and abusing Muslims has always been justified and easily explained. Just as killing Jews was accepted and justified all through Medieval times. The reality is that there were no Syrian or Iraqi or Libyan or Palestinian refugees until America and its allies created them. Most refugees today are escaping the hell that has been created in their homelands by wars and strife foisted on them by nations seeking resources, selling arms and seeking exploitation. In the same breath as demanding peace, Western nations manufacture and sell weapons of mass destruction to the vilest dictators on the planet or use them in their own personal pursuit of commerce and diplomacy through the barrel of a gun. The comment I heard which is ‘stand-up comedy standard’, is what one of the ‘leaders’ said about a sale of F-16’s, ‘It was not meant to be used in combat.’ Well, what else do you use it for? To take your girlfriend to the movies? I recall a poster when JFK was assassinated. It had a picture of a gun in a square frame and the caption, “This is made for one thing only.” At least someone then, spoke the truth.

The point I want to make is not for those individuals, leaders or groups perpetrating these crimes. I am speaking to the vast majority; people who remain silent even though they are well aware of what is happening. That is why I began with my man-eating tiger analogy. Hatred is a man-eater far more voracious than any poor tiger. Hatred is fire and it burns anything in its path. Hatred is fire and the result is always ash. It doesn’t matter why the fire was lit. Whether it was lit as an act of worship or to cook food or keep warm or anything else. It can do only one thing, burn. And the result is always ash. I ask you, is this what you want to bequeath to the world? To your own children?

Some very heartwarming and encouraging reactions to the horrific incident in New Zealand. Overwhelming support from local communities for the victims and their families. Spontaneous outpouring of love and kindness and courage. Thousands of calls to the mosques where people were killed. An unprecedented clear statement of courage by the Prime Minister who called it an ‘Unprecedented premeditated terrorist act.’ I must admit that I was waiting for the usual, ‘stressed out man with personal problems’, definition that is usually used for all white male terrorists. But God Bless her, she said it like it is. Similar statements by the Head of New Zealand Police which is doing an amazing job of bringing the perpetrators to book. No police force in the world can be expected to anticipate and prevent every crime. But every police force in the world can and must investigate crime when it happens and prosecute the criminal and aid the victim. When that is not done, the police are as culpable as the criminal, if not more.

What I want to say to you is this. Get out of denial. There is a change happening in the world and it is the same the world over. Fascism is gaining roots and is being nourished by those who benefit from it. But even more by your silence. Fascism and cowardice are a lethal combination and you will be the casualty. You think your silence and hiding in your hole will save you? It won’t. On the contrary that is what allows fascism to grow ever stronger until the bell tolls for you one day. Pastor Neimoller’s words are, perhaps even more relevant today. “First they came …” is a poem written by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum quotes the following text as one of the many poetic versions of the speech:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Yes, it is wonderful when we see good reactions from people after a horrific incident happens. But what we need even more is proactive action. Proactive action by all of us. We need to stand up and speak out. We need to get out of our safe little nests and speak out against those who seek to use hatred to divide us so that they can benefit. We must speak out against all hatred, no matter who it is directed against. Antisemitism is as wrong as Islamophobia or any other form of hatred. Not less or more. But equal. This means it must be condemned equally. Those who seek to promote it must be rejected, lambasted and castigated. Whoever they may be. Without exception.

We must send the snakes of hatred, racism, fascism back into their holes. We must recognize the obscenity of hate speech and be ashamed of it. It is time to speak up. We must show our support for justice, compassion, mutual respect and human dignity at the ballot boxes. We must hold the media accountable for fanning the flames of hatred and for giving hate speakers and xenophobia mongers, public platforms from which to propagate their venomous ideologies. The easiest and most powerful way to bring media to heel is to switch off your TV, cancel your advertisement or subscription for the press. You have the right to choose. Nobody can force you to choose against your will. So, choose. Choose life, dignity, peace, prosperity and economic development. Remember that not one of those will come from killing people, spreading hatred, or supporting fascist agendas of self-serving leaders.

For how long the denial? We are going back towards fascism. It’s the Muslims today but really it is all of us. If we don’t fight it, it will consume us and then we’ll have only ourselves to blame. Islamophobia is Xenophobia, is fascism, is racism; the blatant hijacking of society by a few because the majority are too lazy to speak up and stand for what they know to be right. I don’t want to be among them. I will speak and I will stand up. Even if I am alone. Especially if I am alone.

If you don’t want to burn, help to put out the fire. It is as simple as that.

 

 

Tajdeed-ul-Ummah bi Tajdeed-ul-Ulama

Text of speech delivered at the AGM of the Jamiat ul Ulama, South Africa in 2006

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

Indeed, all praises are due to Allahﷻ, we praise Him, we seek His help, we ask for His forgiveness, and we rely solely on Him. We seek His refuge from the evil in our souls and from our wicked deeds. Whoever Allahﷻ guides, no one can misguide. And whomever Allahﷻ allows to be misguided (leaves alone to follow his own desires), no one can guide. I bear witness that there is no one worthy of worship except Allahﷻ, He is One, with no partners, and I testify that Muhammadﷺ is His Messenger and His slave.

Rasoolullahﷺ said: “The best speech is the Book of Allahﷻ and the best guidance and example is that of Muhammadﷺ. And the worst of all things are the newly invented things (in religion), for every innovation is error and misguidance.” [Reported by Muslim] and in another narration, “every newly invented matter (in religion) is a bid’ah and every bida’a is a misguidance and every misguidance is in the (hell) Fire.” [Reported by At-Tirmithi].

I want to begin by quoting from one of the greatest of our Ulama in India, Allama Syed Sulaiman Nadwi (RA) who said: “The thing that has spread ignorance and misguided the most is the differentiation between Dunya and Deen. The work of Deen was declared to be different from the work of Dunya. The orders of Allah were separated from the orders of Caesar (world, government). The way to succeed in Deen was stated to be different from the way to succeed in Deen. Students of Islam, this was the biggest mistake that was made but its veil was torn apart by the light of the message of Muhammad. It (the message of Islam) showed that to do the work of the Dunya with good intention and sincerity according to the way permitted by Allah is Deen. That means that living in the Dunya doing its work, but according to the orders of Allah is the essence of religion (Deendari). People think that to sit in seclusion in a cave on a hilltop, engaged exclusively in Dhikr and worship, living a life of self-selected poverty away from people, is Deendari (piety). And to spend time with your friends, family, parents, children, to help them in worldly matters or to help yourself, is Dunyadari (worldliness). Islam wiped out this false belief and clarified that to fulfill your worldly responsibilities, earn your living and participate in the affairs of the world according to the orders of Allah is in fact Deendari (piety).” Syed Sulaiman Nadwi.

I am here to invoke the right that Allahﷻ has given me, as a follower of Islam, to go to the Ulama and ask them to lead me on the path of righteousness. This is my right upon you. And I ask you with humbleness, to give me my right.

I have heard from all the Ulama that I have listened to and read, that Islam is a complete way of life and not merely a way of worship. There is guidance in Islam for every aspect of life that an individual leads, irrespective of the boundaries of time and space. I have also heard that this Islamic way of life is good for all time, until the Hour is established. About you, the Prophetﷺ said (approximate meaning of the hadith): “The Ulama are the inheritors of the Anbiya (Messengers). The Anbiya don’t bequeath dinars and dirhams. They bequeath knowledge. So, whoever acquires knowledge is indeed fortunate.”

What is unstated in this hadith but is its soul is what the Ulama are supposed to do with the knowledge that they have. The Anbiya showed people the way and taught people what they knew. They did not simply collect the knowledge from Allahﷻ and keep it to themselves. They did not merely become storehouses of knowledge but established markets of the knowledge where it could be learnt and benefited from. That was the duty of the Anbiya, to spread the word without fear of anyone. And Allahﷻ promised to protect them as long as they carried out this duty.

Al Ma’aidah:67    O Messenger, proclaim the (message of Islam) which has been sent to you from your Rabb. If you did not do this, you would not have fulfilled and proclaimed His mission. And Allah will defend you from the people (who mean mischief). For Allah guides not those who reject Faith.

About the mission of Rasoolullahﷺ  Allahﷻ said:

 Al Ahzab: 21           You have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern (of life) for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the Praise of Allah.

There are two critical points in this ayah:

  1. That the life of Rasoolullahﷺ  is the best example of the Islamic Way of Life.
  2. That Islam is a Way of Life and not merely a way of worship but the way to lead one’s entire life in all its aspects.

It is essential to keep this perspective in mind as you read the rest of this document.

Historical Perspective – Europe and Christianity

In medieval Europe a combination of the pressure of kings to act at will and the self-serving politics of the Church resulted in a formal division between the Christian Church and the State. What added to this, especially when scientific education became popular (ironically as a result of the contribution of Muslim scientists) was the alienation of the common people from Biblical knowledge because the Bible had been changed by its guardians and no longer made sense to a scientific mind. They found that what their religion said was so divorced from the reality that they had only two choices left to them. Either to discard all religion (which is what Darwinism, Marxism and the various atheistic theories did) or to hold religion as something ceremonial to respect but not as something that can actually be used in real life. Most people made the second choice. So, they went to Church on Sundays and listened to sermons but during the week they continued to live their lives in accordance with their own personal desires. They found nothing contradictory or ridiculous to sit in the same pew with their live-in boy or girl friend and listening to a sermon about faithfulness in marriage and against extra-marital sex.

The State allowed the Church to operate freely in the area of theology, narrowly defined as the study of the Bible, rituals of worship (baptism, marriage and funerals etc.) and preaching. All these were acknowledged as the responsibility of the priests and the State and common people would not ‘interfere’ in them except to provide funding at their will. Priests were given the right to raise funds for their work (building churches, running Sunday schools, seminaries and monasteries, publishing religious literature and missionary work of preaching). All considered to be ‘good work’ which it was the role of the church and priests to do. So also, it was their role to be pure and celibate (extreme form of ‘purity’) and for the women among them to be modest and covered from head to toe (nuns) and to be engaged with only charity and such matters and leave the world and worldly matters alone.

The unspoken condition was that the Church and its priests refrained from ‘interfering’ (criticizing, correcting) in the lives of the kings and common people. If the Church toed this line, it got State sponsorship. When it refused (as in the case of Henry VIII – who founded the Anglican Church as a breakaway from Catholicism in the 16th century. The Church of England broke with Rome, largely because Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon), people simply went ahead and either found some ‘cooperative’ priests who were willing to legitimize their wrong doing. Or they went ahead and did what they wanted to anyway. This only served to enhance the divide between the Church and the common people and gradually the role of the Church was reduced merely to the symbolic.

Historical Perspective – The Muslim World

 Interestingly the same kind of division happened in the Muslim world. Some reasons were the same; i.e. the recalcitrant attitude of kings and common people about following the precepts of the faith in areas where these conflicted with their own desires. Ulama who disagreed with Muslim kings and Khulafa were brutally persecuted, even murdered. Ulama who were cooperative and allowed things which they had no right to allow, simply to please their masters, were praised, supported and enriched. Common people went fatwa shopping and praised those Ulama who legitimized their wrong doing or at least did not openly criticize it. This unfortunate trend continues to this day.

In the face of severe persecution, Ulama retreated from the limelight and took refuge in their Khankhas and restricted themselves to protecting and teaching the scriptures. They deliberately stayed away from matters of a worldly nature and perhaps unconsciously or in times of intense persecution even consciously, agreed to separate their activity from the real world and retreated into their Madaaris and Khankhas. They confined themselves to the study and teaching of the Qur’an and Hadith, rituals of worship and its related aspects (births, marriages and deaths) and some specific issues of fiqh. They became and created super specialists in the religious texts with no attempt to look at their application to fast changing external realities of society. And they also unconsciously and without that intent, started preparing ‘priests’; students whose role was seen as being confined to Imaamat in masajid and teaching in Madaaris. Interestingly, they even called the Darul Uloom or Ja’amia Islamia, a ‘Seminary’ and its Nazim or Muhtamim, ‘The Rector’. It is interesting to note that no attempt was made at least to be distinct from Christian Religious institutions in nomenclature.

All scientific and current knowledge was shunned and considered as being beneath the dignity of Ulama to study. Therefore, Ulama and students became less and less knowledgeable about science and technology, economics and politics and appeared as being ‘ignorant’ in society. Since they did not (and still don’t) understand science, technology and current knowledge, most of them have no idea how to use it to benefit Islam or Muslims. Or to ‘translate’ theology to help ordinary Muslims understand its relevance to their lives today. The same attitude was applied to all worldly subjects and so gradually the leadership of the world passed from the hands of the Ulama into the hands of others.

Until the 19th century students went to an A’alim to learn a particular branch of theology. When they finished there, they went to someone else to learn another branch. When formal Madaris were established (in the 20th century), they simply brought several Ulama, each an expert in his branch of theology, together in one place. The curriculum simply followed the earlier method of learning where each a’alim taught in his expert area with no reference to what another a’alim would teach the students in the next period.

For example, if students of a class are doing the tafseer of the ayaat of Sura Al Baqara relating to interest-based financing and the writing of contracts in their Qur’anic Tafsir class, they do not necessarily study the Kitaab ul Buyoo’ in their Hadith class. Nor do they study the (Principles) Matha’il of Fiqh to do with business, contractual dealings, financing and its current forms in the world. Therefore, to connect one branch of theological knowledge with another and then to interpret it in the context of current social realities is something that is simply left to the student’s ability with predictable results. Not surprisingly this has created a disconnect for ordinary Muslims between what Islam teaches and the questions they face in their daily lives.

Ignorance as always breeds fear and so also in this case where there is a universal phobia (though not always acknowledged) among the Ulama about science and technology. Ulama forgot that the Qur’an itself encourages the person to research in the creation and recognize the signs (Ayaat) of Allahﷻ. The Qur’an teaches the way in which this is to be done; the sequence of guidance without which one sees the signs of the Creator yet fails to recognize Him in those signs. It was the responsibility of the Ulama and to show the world the right way to research scientific knowledge, but they did not shoulder this responsibility. Instead they discarded scientific knowledge and called it a source of misguidance, without recognizing that the danger lay in the method of teaching by the secularists, not in the knowledge itself. This increased the alienation even more.

The liberal atmosphere in universities became another cause to criticize and fear them and so Muslim students were discouraged from going to university. Strangely there was no attempt to go to university and change the atmosphere to one that is more oriented towards learning. There was a strange lack of confidence in our own theology and our ability to persuade or influence anyone about the Islamic way of life. That is why there was the unspoken fear that if our students went to university they would get ‘corrupted’ while the fact that they could conceivably have influenced others, was neither acknowledged or even considered possible. Sadly, this attitude exists even today in many quarters.

The Qur’an on the other hand encourages scientific research and education and also teaches the way in which this must be done. It teaches the sequence that must be followed in order that scientific education becomes a source of guidance and strengthening of Imaan. It draws attention to the fact that if this sequence is not followed, then there is danger of the student going astray.

Allahﷻ describes those people who He calls People of Understanding (Ulul Albab). It is important to understand this description and see if we fit it or not as we consider ourselves to be intelligent.

A’al Imraan:190-91        Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are indeed Signs for People of Understanding. They are those who celebrate the praises of Allah standing sitting and lying down on their sides and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth (with the thought): Our Rabb! Not for nothing have you created (all) this! Glory to You! Give us salvation from the penalty of the fire.

Please notice that Allahﷻ uses the term WA and not AU when he connects His Dhikr with scientific research وَيَتَفَكَّرُونَ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ. Teaching theology and scientific knowledge are not antagonistic or mutually exclusive in Islam, but one leads to the other and strengthens the other. The Qur’an teaches the methodology to do this so that the student sees the signs of Allahﷻ in the world by means of this knowledge. But somewhere we lost this connection and lost our position as leaders in science and technology. We lost this because we did not follow the Qur’an. Not because we lost the scientists in wars. If the sequence that the Qur’an teaches is followed, then mankind has no alternative but to recognize Allahﷻ in His creation and to exclaim in wonder and amazement at the Majesty of the Creator;

 “O Our Rabb! Not for nothing have you created this. Glory to You. Give us salvation from the penalty of the fire.”

On the other hand, when science is taught from an atheistic or secular perspective, as if there is no Creator, then it perpetuates this lie. Students get confused. Their basic questions can’t be answered. They confuse the “Why” with the “How”. They fail to learn the purpose behind the created thing and remain engrossed in its nature. This can lead to an irreligious attitude and an alienation from Islam and the message of Allahﷻ. Unfortunately, our Ulama due to their own ignorance of science and technology looked at these branches of knowledge with suspicion and did not even think of becoming its teachers in the Qur’anic way. Secularists on the other hand taught science from an atheistic perspective and the division between the average Muslim and Ulama widened.

 Strategy for the future

 There is much that needs to be done and many changes that need to be made if the Ulama are to take the leadership role in the Ummah and the world. In my view there are three major steps that need to be taken. The implementation strategy for each can be worked out in detail.

  1.  Accepting the mantle of leadership for the Ummah and the World

This is the first requirement in my view from which everything else will flow. Unless Ulama accept that it is indeed their responsibility to lead the world in every sense of the term, no change can take place in the current situation where they merely seem to consider it their duty to preserve and teach theology alone. If Islam is indeed a way of life (Nizaam-e-hayaat) and not a system of belief (Nazariya) alone, then it is essential that we learn to talk about the whole of life in all its aspects, social, political, economic and personal. The religious aspect permeates all of these and is not something to be spoken of or dealt with in isolation as happens today. We accept this in principle and in word, but we do nothing about implementing this in our teaching.

      2.  Becoming and creating Standard Bearers (Alam bardaar) of Islam

The gap between the Ulama and the ordinary Muslim is very wide and widening. The gap between the A’alim of Islam and the non-Muslim is beyond description. If the Ulama are to be the leaders of the Ummah and of the world, then this gap must be bridged. It is the responsibility of those who aspire to leadership to create followership. In order to do this, it is not enough, even useless and harmful, to simply sermonize and “talk at” people. It is essential to become and create Standard Bearers of Islam. People who are living, walking, talking, working and visible examples of the excellence of the Islamic Way of Life.

The ayah I quoted about the life of the Messenger of Allahﷻ is a clear proof that this was the intention of Allahﷻ in sending our beloved Prophetﷺ, to demonstrate to the world, what it means to live like a Muslim. He came to SHOW Islam, not merely to TALK ABOUT Islam. So, if we truly want to follow the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ it is essential to translate Islamic theory into practice and give people tools to apply in their lives which will lead to success in this life itself. This is the promise of Allahﷻ, for those who practice the Islamic Way of Life, success both in this world as well as in the next. It is success in this world that is visible and when people see the benefit of Applied Islam, they will not need anyone to exhort them to practice it. It is not enough to merely teach one branch of Islam alone, in isolation.

Social change is not brought about using force. It is created by those who believe in it, practicing it with passion and dedication in a way that demonstrates its superiority over other ways. As in the case of the Montessori teaching methodology or even something as mundane as western clothing (trousers and shirt) people saw those who used them, liked what they saw and adopted it without any compulsion from the original users. So also, in the case of the English language, others were influenced by the native speakers of English who refused to speak in any other language and more and more people started using English in their work, wrote in it, spoke it and today it is a universal language. The same thing is happening rapidly today with respect to Western (especially American) culture. It is changing our values, traditions, customs and ways of relating. All this without any overt force from America. The American way is spreading all over the world simply by Americans practicing those ways themselves, publicly, with confidence and without apology. So even though some of the ways are detrimental to society, they are adopted by the ignorant because they are momentarily pleasant to some.

Let us remember that these influences happen because the originators of all these ways refuse to use any other way and insisted on using their own. They did not compel anyone else. They merely used their own ways themselves. Simply seeing them influenced others to change their own age-old customs, practices and their own ways got relegated to ceremonial purposes. That is why Indian dress is worn only on ceremonial occasions while Western dress is worn all through the year. This is just one example. There are many others. The key is to practice Islam confidently and to become its Standard Bearers of Islam in all aspects of our lives.

Let us remember that Muslims know the Why of obedience to Allahﷻ. We need to teach them the How. The reason Islam is not practiced is a tools issue, not an ideology issue. For example, it is not enough to talk about the fact that Abdur Rahman Ibn Awf (RA) who migrated without any resources, started with no capital at his disposal, yet he became the richest man in Madinah in a period of less than 10 years using Halaal means of business. It is necessary to teach people the business model of Abdur Rahman Ibn Awf (RA) so that they can go forward and also become millionaires using Halaal Islamic business methods. If we can’t do this, then telling the story of Abdur Rahman Ibn Awf (RA) is of no practical benefit.

But instead of following the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ who taught the trader how to trade, when we preach without demonstrating or practicing, it creates a credibility gap and leads people to believe that the Deen is merely a way of worship and has no practical use in this life. It is for this reason that Sayyidina Omar Ibn Al Khattab (RA) said that a trader has no right to trade unless he first learns the fiqh of trade. I ask our Ulama, if we are teaching business management classes in our Madaris and Ja’amiaat. If not, then I ask them to let me know, where the Muslim businessman should go to learn the way the Sahaba of Rasoolullahﷺ did business. The same thing is true of all other aspects of life. Be it teaching and learning, psychology and counseling, law and justice, science and technology, medicine and engineering or anything else. We need to teach people how to demonstrate the Islamic Way of Life in what they do in the world. We need to create Standard Bearers of Islam who will Show the way. To which Darul Uloom or Ja’amia can a person go, to learn the complete Islamic Way of Life – Nizaam-e-hayaat?

Humbly and with respect, I submit that it is the challenge of the Ulama to teach Islam in a way where it is truly seen as the best way of life in all aspects of life. This is what is needed to bridge the gap between the Ulama and the Awwam-un-Naas that currently exists. Our Ja’amiat and Madaris must teach science and technology, business and political science. But they must teach it differently from the way it is taught in secular schools. They must teach it in the Qur’anic way and relate what they teach to the Islamic Way. They must help the students to recognize their Creator through seeing His signs in the world around them. That is the true meaning of Da’awa of Islam. It is essential for Ulama to also create active and vibrant fora for interaction and Mashwara between themselves and intellectuals, professionals, technologists, scientists, educators, politicians and administrators, men and women, from among the Muslims. These fora can be formed on a national basis with local chapters which meet periodically and deliberate on current issues that affect the Muslims in the country and the world.

These fora can also be utilized to influence public opinion and to evolve a concerted strategy for united action. Finally, and most importantly these will be a wonderful way to create a mindshare between the Ulama and leaders of Muslim society and a very powerful way of bringing about much needed social change in the Muslim Ummah.

    3.   Become proactive activists for the truth in the socio-political arena

The true face of Islam was seen when the A’alim was also the Khalifa. During the rule of Rasoolullahﷺ, his Khulafa-ar-Raashida, Omar bin Abdul Aziz (R) and other righteous scholar-rulers, Islam shone forth in its true glory as the Right way of leading life. As Allahﷻ said:

Al An’aam: 165     It is He who has made you (His) agents (Khulafa’a) inheritors of the earth: He has raised you in ranks some above others: that he may try you in the gifts that He has given you: for your Rabb is quick in punishment: yet He is indeed Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful.

Let us remember that there is no gift that is more valuable than the gift of Ilm and it is a gift that we will be held accountable for on the Day of Judgment. Let us remember that Khilafat and Wiraasat of the Anbiya come with a responsibility. That is the reason I submit that it is not acceptable for Ulama to seek the comfort, safety and seclusion of their Madaaris and Khankhas while the world is reeling around as if in a drunken state. I submit with all respect that it is the responsibility of those who know the way, to show it to those who don’t know it, even if the ignorant ones don’t have the sense to ask. It is the responsibility of those who know the way to find different ways of gaining the trust of those they seek to lead and then lead them on the right path.

In order to do this, Ulama must address issues on a global plane. The current situation where there is no meaningful collaboration even between Islamic universities and Ja’amiaat around the world is a deplorable thing. Our problem as Ulama and as the Ummah is not that we are not united. It is that we have no strategy for unity, for influencing or for anything else. We urgently and desperately need to think collectively and on a global plane.

The British parliament for example has a Shadow Cabinet where the Opposition Party deliberates on all issues that the Ruling Party is working on and creates shadow legislation in the light of their own ideology. The intention is that if they come to power, they will be ready to rule from the first day. As Muslims, where is our Shadow Cabinet? What is our strategy to govern our affairs according to the Law of the Lawgiver? The same situation prevails about issues of Muslims in different countries. I submit that there is a critical need to set up a Think Tank consisting of Ulama and experts who can think of various issues and suggest proactive steps to deal with them. Our current slowness even in reacting to emerging issues is very detrimental and harmful to us. We not only need to improve our speed of response, but we need to be able to anticipate and act before issues become critical.

Strategies for Change: Some suggestions for the consideration of Ulama

In my view the single most critical thing that distinguishes Islam from all other religions and ideologies is its focus and emphasis on knowledge. The only thing that Allahﷻ taught His Messengerﷺ to ask for increase in, is knowledge. It is for this reason that the scholars of Islam have a very special place in Muslim society. For various historical reasons, this place has been lost for many decades. The time has come however where it is essential for Ulama all over the world to realize their real responsibility and arise to take up the mantle of leadership once again.

This paper is respectfully submitted for consideration and lists the changes that I believe are necessary to make if the Ulama of Islam are once again to get the prominence and influence that they had in early Islamic history.

1.  Change in mindset:

Accept the burden of leadership of the Ummah worldwide in all aspects of social, economic, political and personal life. This will involve a lot of soul searching and a major change in the way of thinking and ownership of collective responsibility. I believe however, that no matter how difficult this may seem to be, without a conscious decision to change our positioning, nothing can be achieved. Today the vast majority of Muslims live as minorities in multi-religious, plural societies. Our challenge is to create a model of living with non-Muslims, such that Muslims become highly respected and influential members of society in the same way as the Parsis are in India. Currently we have a shortage of both respect and influence and apparently no idea of how to get either. The Ulama need to show the way. For this the Ulama must have the humility to accept that they need to prepare themselves and go to those who can teach them about worldly matters and study under them. Our current Madrassa syllabus and curriculum is seriously out of date with the current world and its needs. It needs a major overhaul. This means that teachers will need to learn new subjects and new methods of teaching. The good news is that all this is easy to do and mostly will cost nothing at all, as it is all available free of cost. The bad news is that our own fears and egos are our most powerful enemies. But until we overcome our egos, Ulama are going to lose all relevance in society.

2.  Change in image:

Thoughtfully and aggressively change the current image that Ulama are people who have nothing to do with this world. Become aufait with international norms, etiquette, and behavior. Network globally with other Islamic and secular universities and research bodies. Participate in teacher exchange programs with them. Network with the media and become spokespeople for the global media. Actively work to create media channels to promote Islamic interests. Become visible in the media in all social interest activity. Make our Ja’amiaat and Madaaris centers of excellence in all aspects; scholastically, socially, environmentally and in terms their facilities. Demonstrate excellence in all aspects of life and behavior in our teaching institutions which must become role models for all teaching institutions. (Case in point: Bombay Dabbawalas are a global 6 Sigma Quality case study without computers, managers or offices.)

3.  Correcting the Aqa’id of Muslims:

No good can come to a people who are steeped in bida’at and shirk. So, the first action step will be to establish Tawheed in all aspects of life and to eradicate all shirk and bida’at from the life of the Muslims. Muslims must be brought back to the Qur’an and Sunnah and a clear strong message must be sent out against all that goes contrary to this. Ulama need to stand up against what is wrong and unislamic in all aspects of social and family life, especially in customs relating to marriages, birth and death ceremonies and other customs that have crept into Muslim society. They must speak out against Israaf and ostentatious spending and work towards the disbursement of wealth through Zakat and Sadaquat to the poor. Ulama must walk the talk. Not speak against Israaf in weddings and then accept invitations to ostentatious weddings and attend them because those conducting the wedding are key donors. Unless Ulama disconnect their incomes from Islam, they will never have the courage to speak the truth. Islam is not a business. Create your own income source and do the work of Allahﷻ for the sake of His Pleasure alone.

 4.   Change in course curricula:

Review and reform current curricula in all Madaris and Ja’amiaat and focus on application of Islam to real life issues. Teach all branches of knowledge, both religious and modern but from an Islamic perspective. Develop course curricula, teaching methods and material, books and teacher training courses to enable teachers to teach science and technology in a way that reminds students about the Creator. The goal and challenge is to bridge the gap between theology and science and teach science in such a way that the student recognizes the signs of Allahﷻ.

The second and extremely important element is to introduce Tazkiyya and Tarbiyya into the curriculum as a serious subject. To create ways of teaching both and to demonstrate it by having teachers who are steeped in its practice. Values can’t be legislated. They must be inculcated. That is why teacher recruitment and training is the most critical element in this entire process. Any educational institution or system is only as good as its teachers.

5.  Change in methods of teaching:

Encourage innovation, entrepreneurship, enquiry, debate, dialogue, rigor in research, specialization in application of theory, documentation of results and publications of an international standard. Focus on languages, particularly Arabic and English. Focus on technology and all its applications for research, networking, student and teacher exchange, knowledge sharing, teaching and learning. In an age where religious information is easily available to anyone who has access to the internet, the real value addition of going to a Madrassa must be clear to the student.

6.  Change in focus of learning from theory to practice:

Move the current focus from preservation of knowledge to application of knowledge. We are currently like a library of automobile engineering books. But we all walk to work. We need to create the factories that can translate the knowledge in the books into cars on the street. Our focus must shift from mere memorization of Qur’an and Ahadith to their application in real life today. Our challenge is to show by actual practice, how our Islamic Way of Life is superior to every other way and makes a person a winner in both this life and the next. We must show how practicing the Islamic Way is actually superior in this life. We must demonstrate the superiority of the Islamic Way to non-believers and to ordinary Muslims. Like sugar which is sweet no matter who uses it, the Islamic Way must be shown to work wonders for all those who use it even if they are not Muslims.

 7.  Measure the Quality of religious education

Currently there is no measurement of the quality of religious education. Each Jamia teaches courses with the same names but the output is very disparate. There is no comparison between the quality of students of one institution and another. In short there are no quality methods to measure the quality of education or to compare between institutions. Methods of empirical measurement based on scholastic output must be created. Teachers must be graded on the quality of their teaching.

Quality measurement parameters must be set up. A good way to understand this is to see that for instance if the passing mark in the graduation exam is 40% what would the institution itself look like if the same passing mark was applied to it. If 600 students complete Daur-e-Hadith, then if 240 become world class Muhadditheen, the institution can only be said to have ‘passed’. We are all aware of what our institutions will look like if we apply this standard today. It is precisely because we have no measurement that those who excel in our institutions are few and far between. This can never change unless we measure the quality of our education on a comparative, continuous basis. For this it is necessary to have a single consolidated examination system. We need to have a Coordinating Council for all Madrassas which among other things must create a common curriculum and conduct a common examination. This must be done at the undergraduate level after which different Darul Ulooms can become centers for tertiary specialization in different disciplines. One can be the place to go for specialization in Fiqh, another in Hadith another in Tafseer and so on. That way we would also have a healthy intermixing of students rather than the present clique-like adherence to one or other of the Darul Ulooms without any interaction with anyone else.

8.  Change in Socio-Political stance:

Barring some exceptions, historically Ulama have not played an activist role to correct social evils even though this has specifically been ordered by Allahﷻ. In some cases (as in India) they even colluded with the powers that be to justify oppression. As in the case of the Dalits in India, some Ulama even created the theory of Ashraf and Ardhal among the Muslims, where converts were still considered ‘untouchable’ even by Muslims and continue to be shunned. This is particularly tragic because it is directly contrary to the teachings of Rasoolullahﷺ and against the foundational principles of Islamic Law which does not distinguish between people on the basis of color, race or tribe/family origin. Indian Muslims have created a complete caste system based on the same illogical basis as the Hindu caste system and with the same disastrous results. Yet they are not willing to change and insist for example on marrying only within their ‘caste’ (biradari). It is a shame that this system is even today not deplored and castigated publicly by the Ulama but instead is tacitly supported. Similarly, in the Abbasid times new reverts to Islam were still forced to pay jizya on the ruling that only Arabs were exempt from jizya.

Such policies may have resulted in some additional income into the king’s pocket but discouraged people from entering Islam. Unfortunately, many Ulama of the time supported these policies. Ulama must actively partner with Muslim intellectuals, businessmen, scientists, journalists, media experts, technologists and administrators to jointly develop approaches to situations facing the Muslim community. The current isolation of the Ulama is very regrettable and even dangerous. This isolation must be replaced with a vibrant culture of sharing of thoughts, ideas, hopes, aspirations, fears and apprehensions between Ulama and the learned in other fields. This must be done in an atmosphere of genuine mutual respect and appreciation and a common understanding of the challenges that face us.

The Ulama need to take an assertive, proactive stance in all aspects of society not only to actively combat all attacks on Islam and Muslims but to proactively deal with emerging issues. They need to first identify and select social evils in Muslim society and eradicate them. Then Ulama need to become the social activists who help all oppressed people to fight against their oppressors irrespective of their race or religion. Simultaneously they need to demonstrate and present Islamic models in all aspects of social, political and economic life which will present people with a viable and desirable alternative to the ways that they are currently used to.

9.  Change in attitude towards money: Become financially self sufficient:

Ulama need to rethink their attitude to money and actively work to make their institutions financially self-sufficient by the creation of endowment trusts, financial investments that yield return or other such means. The present situation of financial dependency creates a lack of respect in society and poses a serious hindrance to all developmental work that may be envisaged. Transparency of dealing, financial discipline, planning and control are all essential to establish. We need to be able to demonstrate the efficacy and superiority of Islamic Banking over other ways of banking and how it develops society instead of destroying it.

However, in over 1400 years we don’t have a single viable Islamic financial model on a global scale. This is because our focus has never been on application. Instead our own religious institutions are dependent on charity for their existence. Islam did not come to make beggars out of us. We chose to become beggars instead of becoming philanthropists to the world. That is why we have no influence in society. After all who listens to a beggar? This also makes it difficult for us to criticize those who donate to our Madaaris. In some cases, such people are engaged in banking, cigarette manufacture and other Haraam business or engage in clear Israaf in their lives, yet we can’t say anything to them for fear that they will discontinue their donations. This further harms our own image in the eyes of others.

10.  Change in approach to society at large:

Ulama, Ja’amiaat, Madaaris must focus on social work, especially to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, superstition and ignorance. It is essential for Ulama to be visible in all situations of natural or man-made disasters, giving aid to all people who are affected irrespective of their religion. Ulama and their students can run on-going programs at the village level focused at adult literacy, social awareness, alcohol detoxification, women’s issues, marriage counseling and other such matters. For this, courses in Applied Psychology & Counseling, Law, Public Administration, Teacher’s Training, Montessori Education, Entrepreneurship Development, Rural Development, Agriculture & Animal Husbandry and other subjects can be taught or otherwise made available to Ja’amia students. This will not only give them a way of earning a decent living but will also impact society and demonstrate the value of Muslim institutions to the world. Ulama must learn to work with their hands and not consider that to be beneath their dignity. All kinds of skill courses are available, in most countries funded by government, which Darul Uloom students must take so that by the time they graduate, they will have a marketable skill and become financially independent. Then they can teach Islam with courage and integrity without fearing or trying to please anyone other than Allahﷻ.

11.  Change in approach to women

It is a peculiar situation where on the one hand we talk of Islam as being the first religion that actively worked for the emancipation of women and gave women legal, political and social rights in a society where even their human identity was denied. On the other hand, our (especially Ulama’s) attitude towards women is anything but collaborative and equal. We treat women with hostile suspicion and in most Muslim societies deny them the rights that Islam has given them. Local customs, tribal practices and blatant male domination and patriarchy characterize our attitude towards women. We make no effort to involve them in any serious discourse that has to do with any religious, social or political agenda. Yet we make sanctimonious speeches of how one pious woman can change the whole family. No nation can progress or prosper that refuses to allow more than half its population to participate in nation building. It is a choice that we need to make. The situation has come where if we don’t make the choice according to Islam our women will take the choice out of our hands.

12.  Learning to disagree without being disagreeable

It is a sad situation that as times have changed, we seem to have lost the ability to dispute with concern. Over and over again we see instances of Ulama disputing with each other over various matters, some serious, some trivial but doing this almost invariably in ways which divide the Ummah. Ulama take stances which are hard, use language which is harsh and are unbending and unwilling to change their opinions no matter what logic is presented. At the same time, we talk about the way in which our elders and teachers used to dispute, where as a result of the dispute, their hearts came closer and their understanding of the Deen was clearer. Today therefore it is an essential skill for us to learn; to disagree without being disagreeable. To learn to dispute on matters of principle and understanding but ensure that the hearts are always kept free of all rancor. It is essential to delink one’s ego from the argument so that any situation or interpretation can be discussed and dialogued in detail and in depth so that the best possible way of understanding it comes to light and all those involved can agree on this. In cases where an agreement is not possible, when disagreement follows the rules of keeping the hearts free from hatred and personal conflict, then people can agree to disagree yet remain friends.

In the interest of keeping the Ummah together, it is essential that we follow these rules of disputing so that as a result of the dispute the Ummah does not divide even further.

13.  Tazkiyatun Nafs (Purification of the Soul)

It is an accepted principle in agriculture that one must prepare the ground first before any seed can be planted and be expected to germinate, grow and produce fruit. Without proper preparation of the earth the seed will either not germinate at all or be deficient in its growth. Tazkiyya is the preparation of the heart to receive the knowledge of the Revelation. Without this preparation the knowledge will fall on cold stone and leave it unmoved. The fault lies not with the knowledge but with the lack of preparation. Allahﷻ made Tazkiyya a major role of Nabuwwat (Prophethood) when He said:

A’al Imraan 3: 164.        Indeed Allâh conferred a great favor on the believers when He sent among them a Messenger from among themselves, reciting unto them His Verses (the Qur’ân), and purifying them (tazkiyyatun nafs), and instructing them (in) the Book (the Qur’ân) and Al Hikmah [the wisdom and the Sunnah], while before that they had been in manifest error.

It is a regrettable fact that in the course of years we seem to have lost the importance of Tazkiyya in our teaching system. We seem to concentrate purely on the external without any focus on the internal or hidden aspect of our worship and actions. There is almost no religious institution which takes care to graduate the students with the help of a trained Shaikh through a ‘course’ on Tazkiyya. The correction of the internal aspects of oneself, Baatini Islaah, is a very important aspect of learning that Rasoolullahﷺ and all those who came after him among the great teachers of Islam paid close attention to. Allahﷻ  mentioned this internal aspect of worship in the Qur’an with specific reference to Salah where He said:

Al Mu’minoon 23: 1.       Successful indeed are the believers.2. Those who offer their Salât (prayers) with all solemnity and full submissiveness.

Al Ma’oon 107: 4. So woe unto those performers of Salât 5. Who delay their Salât from their stated fixed times,6. Those who do good deeds only to be seen (by others).

This has specific reference to the intention which is an internal aspect of worship that is a condition of its acceptance with Allahﷻ. A lack of sincerity can nullify the best of deeds.

This is further confirmed by the famous hadith of Niyyah narrated by Sayyidina Omar Ibn Al Khattab (RA) which is usually the first hadith in most books where he reported Rasoolullahﷺ as saying: ‘The reward of deeds is based on their intention.’  Intention is an internal matter, not visible to the outsider but something that is so important that the entire deed depends on it for its validity before Allahﷻ.

Allahﷻ said about the internal aspects of reading and listening to the Qur’an:

Zumar 39:23.  Allâh has sent down the best statement, a Book (this Qur’ân), its parts resembling each other in goodness and truth, oft-repeated. The skins of those who fear their Lord shiver from it (when they recite it or hear it). Then their skin and their heart soften to the remembrance of Allâh. That is the guidance of Allâh. He Guides there-with whom He pleases and whomever Allâh sends astray, for him there is no guide.

Anfaal 8: 2.  The believers are only those who, when Allâh is mentioned, feel a fear in their hearts and when His Verses (this Qur’ân) are recited unto them, they (i.e. the Verses) increase their Faith; and they put their trust in their Rabb (Alone);

I wonder how many times in our Tahfeezul Qur’an class do we ask the student to reflect on what effect the recitation is having on his heart. After all Allahﷻ described the effect it is supposed to have, so it is only logical and natural that we should reflect and examine if our hearts are also responding in this way or not. If they aren’t then we need to question the state of our hearts and take remedial action to bring them alive. Hardness of the heart is a sickness and must be cured. That is why we need to focus on Tazkiyya before we begin any teaching. Allah said about sins:

Al An’am 6:120.   Leave (O mankind, all kinds of) sin, open and secret. Verily, those who commit sin will get due recompense for that which they used to commit.

Al An’am 6:151      And do not go (even) near acts of indecency, open or secret ( al-Fawahish ma zahara minha  wa ma batan ).

Allahﷻ called following one’s desires, Shirk and said:

Al Furqan 25: 43.  Have you (O Muhammad SAW) seen him who has taken as his ilâh (god) his own desire? Would you then be a Wakîl (a disposer of his affairs or a watcher) over him?

Allahﷻ said that the ones who are successful are the ones who purify themselves. He said:

Faatir 35: 18          …..And he who purifies himself (from all kinds of sins), then he purifies only for the benefit of his ownself. 

Al A’ala 87:14. Indeed whosoever purifies himself shall achieve success,

It is clear from these Ayaat as well as many Ahadith and the Seerah of Rasoolullahﷺ that it is essential to pay close attention to Tazkiyatun Nafs if one is to benefit from religious knowledge. In my view it is because we teach Fiqh without attention to Tazkiyya that we produce arrogance and rigidity in the heart of the student. In the current scheme of things, working on one’s own internal issues is left to the student’s own devises. This must be changed forthwith. Without purification of the soul and without a focus on the hidden aspects of worship and conduct, religious education can never be complete. Just as the Salah is not complete with paying attention to its external aspects alone but one must work on developing concentration and dedication until one reaches a level of Ihsaan as described in Hadith Jibreel (AS), narrated by Sayyidina Omar Ibn Al Khattab (RA); no other aspect of Islam will be complete with the external alone.

 Conclusion

As time passes not only are our Ulama getting disconnected with the world but more importantly with our own Ummah. Most ordinary Muslims can’t understand, connect or be influenced by our Ulama. This is a situation that must be changed as a matter of the highest priority.

Ulama who believe that they should be leading the Ummah need to ask how Madrassa education (what we teach and how we do it) prepares them to do so. What changes are necessary? Who will make those changes? What will help and what will hinder? What are the consequences of not changing? Time for Dhuaandaar Taqareer (smoky speeches) is over. It is time to clear the smoke and look at the stark reality. Shooting the messenger will only accelerate our own demise. Those who don’t wish to change and those who follow them, will perish together. That is the harsh reality.

What we need is to sit down and face the reality and even more difficult, face ourselves and our attitudes. Believe me, that will be truly painful. But it is like accepting the pain of the surgery to the alternative of death.