Just like Edward Said in his work Orientalism talked about a distance and patronisation with which the west referred to the east as servile to power, German anthropologist Johannes Fabian penned the concept of the “denial of coevalness”. This is when anthropologists defined people they studied as if those people belonged to another time. In the denial of an authentic voice from the east, the west has consistently disregarded and unauthenticated the chronicles that emerge from countries like Pakistan. In the denial of the same temporal space journalists inhabit with terrorists like the Taliban and Islamic State (IS), readers are left with only a limited understanding of the motivations and schemas of those who are responsible for some of humanity’s most brutal attacks.
Therefore, it is no surprise that even from among the oriental cultures people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali write books that work in binaries: a good Muslim is a non-Muslim. Her book is called Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. In the epic interview between Ali and legendary political commentator Jon Stewart there can only be awe for the mastery over political astuteness that Stewart had. He repeatedly asked Ali why, seemingly, her book suggested that there was an innate fault with the scriptures of Islam that caused the violence terrorists unleash. “I think people single out Islam as though there is something inherently wrong with it that was not wrong with other religions. Christianity went through almost the exact same process,” said Stewart.
He essentially brought down the argument based on the possible question: if there was no scripture in Islam that existed, do you not think people who are inherently violence-prone would invent an alternative inspiration for violence? This need that we have to have an Islam-centrist approach to mindless violence is merely the propagation of a form of orientalism as well as the irate need to deny that we share the same time and space as those who murder humanity. As horrific as the claim by the Taliban after the Peshawar massacre of our 132 children that it was mirrored by practices in seventh century Arabia, we have to admit that they have chosen to make this interpretation in a time when bionic legs, comet landings and Pakistani women air force pilots exist.
When our journalism lexicon places oceanic distances between its readers and those who have chosen destruction over peace, it closes the door to all kinds of resolutions: human, political, spiritual and religious. It closes the door to conveying to IS and the Taliban of the beheading and massacring fame, that there is an alternate to approaching life with fear, that instead it can be approached with science.
It closes the door to any conversations that introduce new heroes of the Muslim world to Muslims themselves. Heroes like Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroës, seeded secular thought in western Europe. This effort is not just important; it is the only way through which Muslims can reclaim a big part of the time that they have been disjoined from. It opens debate with Muslims who may or may not agree with Ibn Sina, Ibn Battuta, Ghazali or Abu Bakr Al-Razi but converge on the importance of scientific inquiry itself.
In the beginning of this year, in chilly Istanbul snow, leading Muslim scientists gathered from around the world for a taskforce led by Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the former secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). I watched as they oscillated between heavy debates on the nafs (soul) and a collective realisation that Islam needs a new scientific awakening and renaissance. These scientists, historians and theologians reconciled their profession with their beliefs around five central questions. Dr Athar Osama, the founder of Muslim-Science.com and the director of the Task Forces Initiative was concerned about the need to reclaim the narrative of science within the Islamic community — a narrative that in recent years has been imposed from outside rather than created from inside — and hence begin an inside-out process of scientific revival within the Islamic world.
For far too long Muslims have lived in the darkness of ignorance, susceptible to manipulation and forced into carrying out acts of violence. Unable to question the failure of our people to inherit the rich tradition of free thinking and scientific process, Muslims have developed the neat trick of denying that the violence that we see today is part of our times. It is time we trudge forward without labeling them as medieval and without being armed by perhaps the most lethal weapon our technologically advanced era could produce: little knowledge.