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 The Challenges of Globalization and the Muslim World    by Professor A. R. Momin

Responding to the challenges of globalization

A deep and pervasive sense of despair and hopelessness, coupled with anger and resentment, seems to prevail in large parts of the Muslim world.

In his farewell speech as prime minister of Malaysia at an Islamic summit hosted by him on October 16, 2003, Mahathir Mohammed raised the question as to why Muslim civilization has become so humiliated, and then added, "our only reaction (to this malaise) is to become more and more angry. Angry people cannot think properly."

A dispassionate, carefully crafted and effective response to the challenges of globalization faced by the Islamic world, or to the predicament of the Muslim ummah in general, is thwarted by a set of impediments. There is an unfortunate absence in the Muslim world of critical reflection and a realistic and balanced appraisal of the global scenario, the prospects and opportunities afforded by it, and the obstacles in availing of these opportunities. By and large, the perception and response of the Muslim world to the challenges of globalization is characterized by a blissful ignorance of the rapidly changing global scenario, complacency and self-righteousness, hypersensitivity and defensiveness, absence of collective self-introspection, pervasive disunity and dissension, paucity of coordination and concerted action, and lack of vision and farsightedness.

However, as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. During the past two decades there has come about a refreshing revival and resurgence of Islamic consciousness in large parts of the Muslim world. This is reflected in the increasing popularity of Islamic literature (including Islamic software), the growing involvement of the Muslim elite, women and youth in faith-based communitarian activities and programmes, the growth of local associations and organizations, and the salience of transnational Islamic movements.

Islamic banking and financial services have emerged as a major force in the Islamic world. In response to the growing demand for Shariah-oriented financial services from their Muslim clientele, some of the major international banks have started their own Islamic financial services. Leading banks such as HSBC and Citi have set up full-fledged Shariah advisory boards of Islamic scholars to offer advice on new financial products such as Islamic bonds and hedge bonds. In 2003 HSBC bank launched an "Islamic mortgage" scheme in Britain to provide halal loans for house purchase.

Deutsche Bank is a majority shareholder in the Dar al Istithmar Sharia Consultancy. Investment bankers in the Western world are competing to create a range of new Islamic capital market products on a large scale.

One of the major ailments affecting the Islamic world is the absence of free media. Satellite television channels are now challenging the monopoly of the state over the means of production and dissemination of information, thereby increasing the space for civil society. A revolutionary breakthrough in this direction came about with the launch of Al-Jazeera, an independent television channel, in Qatar in 1996. Al-Jazeera is broadcasted via satellite and Internet free of charge around the world. The programmes aired on the channel are marked by objectivity, balance and a high degree of professionalism. Al-Jazeera enjoys huge popularity in the Arab world as well as in the Arabic-speaking diaspora in Western countries, with an estimated audience of over 40 million.

It is gratifying to note that, by and large, Muslims living in Western countries have not given in to despondency and despair in the face of trying circumstances. They have sought to come to grips with challenges and problems with courage of conviction and determination and without compromising their cherished beliefs and values. They have created large religious and cultural spaces-mosques, prayer halls, community centres, Islamic schools, local organizations-in order to meet the religious and cultural requirements of the local Muslim communities. At the same time, they consider themselves as full-fledged citizens of the countries where they are living and participate in the social, economic and political affairs of the local communities as well as the wider society.

A positive development in recent years is the growing tendency on the part of Muslims living in Western countries to get their grievances redressed and to secure their legitimate rights within the legal and constitutional framework, and not in the name of minority rights. In Germany, for example, Muslims are seeking the resolution of their problems from within German society. The German constitution, for instance, allows religious instruction in state-funded schools. The demand by German Muslims for allowing Islamic teachings in schools is legitimized in the framework of this constitutional provision. Similarly, the decisions by the Supreme Administrative Courts in Germany that allow Muslim girls in some cities to be exempted from coeducational sports lessons, or the recent court decision that grants Muslims the right to slaughter animals according to their religious ritual, were informed and guided by the basic principle of freedom of religion guaranteed by the German constitution. The courts in Germany as well as in other European countries are playing a highly important role in granting legal recognition to the religious and cultural rights of Muslims and other minorities. This is illustrated by a recent case which came up before the Supreme Court in Germany. A Muslim woman of Afghan descent had lived in Germany from 1987 and acquired German nationality in 1995. In 1998 she completed her education to become a teacher in an elementary school, but was refused commission because she was not willing to remove her headscarf before class. She filed a petition in the Supreme Court. She argued that her wearing of the headscarf represented individual and religiously motivated conduct that was protected by the German constitution. The Supreme Court gave the verdict in her favour. In the Netherlands, a Muslim woman's registration in a teacher training programme was cancelled because she refused to shake hand with a male teacher on religious grounds. She approached the Committee for Equal Treatment, a state institution which has been created to deal with the issue of discrimination on grounds of race, gender or conviction, which ruled in her favour.

There is an increasing appreciation among Muslims of the positive role of dialogue and negotiation in creating an atmosphere of understanding and harmony. A pioneering move in this direction was taken by Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, the former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In his key-note address at a Unesco conference on April 5, 2005, Mr Khatami emphasized the centrality of dialogue among civilizations for the management of world affairs. He stressed that dialogue among civilizations signifies the rejection of terrorism and violence. Religious leaders and transnational Islamic bodies like the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) are playing an important role in projecting the value of inter-civilizational dialogue and harmony as an important means of removing misunderstandings about Islam. The concluding statement of the first European conference of Imams in Graz (Austria) in 2003 declared that Muslim identity is compatible with the values of democracy, the rule of law, pluralism and human rights.

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